Monday, September 07, 2009

Can we grow the number of readers?

Zetta Elliott makes some great points re people of color in books and as authors.

Without in any way diminishing the very real problem of the white worldview of children's book publishing, I am struck by how often and widely charges of non-representation ("why aren't there more _____ in children's books?" "where are the books for ____ children?") are made of children's and YA literature. Books for and about boys. Books that show children in non-traditional families. Books that show children in traditional families, attending church. Middle-class black people. Girls who don't like pink.

The thinking goes that if there were more books about and for _____, more kids who are the same _____ would read. I wonder. Although I do believe that readers, at least in part, read for "the shock of recognition" Richard Peck talks about, I'm not sure that translates to wanting to read books "about people like me." It's more about being able to see yourself in circumstances unlike your own. To take the argument to its absurd conclusion, the belief that books should reflect their readers' circumstances means we could all give up reading and just look in the mirror.

But the concern here isn't so much with readers but with nonreaders. Do you remember the scandal of a few years ago with those Freakonomics guys, claiming that an enjoyment of reading was genetic? That kids didn't read because their parents read to them twenty minutes a day, they did so because their parents, as readers, were more likely to read to them twenty minutes a day? This is a little too mechanistic for me but I don't discount it completely. The pursuit of a more varied literary universe is an unalloyed wonderful thing--for readers. But I don't know that it will swell the ranks.

23 comments:

Lelac said...

Anecdotally, from my classroom: Kids who are already readers will read any book in which they can find themselves or the ideas that interest them. But kids who aren't readers yet are much, much more likely to begin finding pleasure in (in our case) a story about a black city kid trying to grow up well than anywhere else.

No matter how many times I watch it happen it never fails to take my breath away, that several-week sequence by which a formerly reluctant reader loves one book and then a second and then a series and then, with bemused delight, the act of reading.

Maybe they wouldn't know to seek these books out on their own -- but for those of us who spend all day walking backwards and gesticulating down the path to readerliness, books that make finding yourself easy matter a great deal.

Lelac said...

Specifically, and for example: The novel KENDRA, by Coe Booth, has magic power in my school. I have never ever ever had a child start and not finish it. It came out something like a year ago and it's been the First Book I Really Loved for at least a dozen newly minted readers.

Anonymous said...

Lelac,

I didn't comment on the post because I am feeling discouraged and very like a troll today. Your comment is a much appreciated pick-me-up. I wanted to say thank you.

Roger Sutton said...

That is indeed heartening, and Coe Booth is one of the most exciting writers to come on the scene in recent years.

Christine said...

Roger,

You stated: "I'm not sure that translates to wanting to read books "about people like me." It's more about being able to see yourself in circumstances unlike your own."

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree.

But the problem, if I can put in my two cents as a mom and reading addict, is that when the books are so overwhelmingly one sided in terms of their depiction of race, the kids get the subtle message "not you."

"You" can't be a prince or princess. "All" great fairytales and lores are European. You'll never have an epic adventure. And - if you look at some of the bestselling books - you won't be in the "inner circle."

Some -- perhaps many -- children need to see their experiences addressed in books but I'm I see a broader need. Books that feature children of color (all colors) doing ordinary and extraordinary things not tied to their race or some tired stereotype.

So the question I ask is why is the "default" position always "white child as hero?"

Years ago a wonderful editor pulled me aside at a national writing conference and told me what the score really was. That was 2000 - and not much has changed since then. Sigh. African American, Asian and Latino authors still get push back when they try to write outside of a narrow boundary.

There was once a great call from parents, teacher and librarians for more books about the "Black experience". Kudos - but in some perverse way that has lead to an over saturation of civil rights, slavery, ghetto and poverty stories, enhanced with a smattering of jazz and a rare middle class kid. It's the sameness of it all that leaves my kids screaming away and towards "mainstream" books and "translating."

Books serve multiple purposes - escapism but also clues to what goes on in a broader world. For every kid who wants to see "themselves" in a "realistic" situation, I'll show you 3 others who read those books only because a teacher required it, but are reading non-required texts on the school ride home - for instance - the Black Panther comic book series where the lead is African American, king of a mythical African country, and has a multicultural cast of friends.

So let me put my marketing hat on - Everywhere I go I get pleas from teachers about the need for a broader selection of books depicting people of color. But if publishing - and sales and marketing in particular - believe that those books have no profitability - they don't get published. That's a lot of money left on the table.

And if a publisher puts a book out and then buries it (no marketing or co-op dollars) then a public - already trained not to look for such titles - doesn't. To which sales and marketing proclaims "See - no market for them."

Catch 22 - can't buy what is hard to find (even if in print).

Until then, my kids are stuck with clumsy loner and her impossibly beautiful, dazzling pale white love interest, a orphaned wizard and all the other trade books that make their own needs and desires invisible (unless they translate).

Bella's problems aren't because she's white - it's because she's Bella. So why, if publishing turned Bella into an ethnic girl, would that suddenly make the book unmarketable or - worse - a "ethnic interest" book - which is considered the kiss of death for a book?

Publishing strikes me as wholly inefficient because the decision makers spend a lot of time pleasing adults in the system and next to no time getting intimate with the very population we ultimately claim to write and publish for.

What other industry works that way and succeeds?

Anonymous said...

"Although I do believe that readers, at least in part, read for "the shock of recognition" Richard Peck talks about, I'm not sure that translates to wanting to read books "about people like me." It's more about being able to see yourself in circumstances unlike your own."

Yes, though I think it's often both ideas working at the same time, and not in contradiction; it's about wanting to see how someone you can recognize as in some ways like yourself handles a situation you don't recognize.

Doret said...

I love Booth's novel and I always enjoy introducing customers to her books.

Though I believe the fact that Booth's name always seems to come up when there's talk about the lack of Color within children's and YA books, proves one of the points Zetta was making.

As much as I enjoy Booth's writing when this discussion comes up again I would loved to see more authors of color mentioned. Including Booth of course. I would simply like to see more authors of color recognized

I love and agree with everything Christine said.

"Catch 22 - can't buy what is hard to find (even if in print)."

I loved Charles R. Smith Jr's O8 YA release Chameleon. Set in 80's featuring four Black male protagonists. Its their summer before freshman year. Its one of the best YA novels, no one talks about, no one knows about, so no one can buy

Andy Laties said...

Zetta's post, and the responses to this post on Hornbook, focus on the publishing industry. As usual, I would just like to point out that the publishing industry is still hog-tied by Barnes & Noble. But the resurgent growth of independent bookselling can shift this power balance, providing outlets for a wider variety of literature.

We independent children's booksellers are quite concerned to carry a robust, diverse selection--it's a critical competitive opportunity for us, since our key customers are teachers. There used to be 400 of us nationwide and now there are about 100. But we're headed into a baby boom in this country, and I feel confident that more indie children's bookstores will be opening in coming years. They can help break this logjam by proving to publishers there's a channel to distribute more diverse titles.

stacy said...

I also agree with Christine. I think that genre fiction, especially, needs to get over the white-default thing. I think that there are plenty of kids, as Roger points out, who are looking for books about kids in similar circumstances. But I became a genre reader because I was *tired* of reading about kids in my circumstance.

Most of the YA available to me when I was a teen were problem novels: abused kids, kids from divorced homes, etc. etc. I was a child of divorce in an abusive home, and I wanted something *different* from my circumstances to read about. Reading The Chocolate War was sheer torture to me as a high school freshman, for example--it was so utterly hopeless and depressing. I wanted something adventurous, magical, hopeful. Something transcending my own circumstances (which were nothing like that in The Chocolate War, either, so perhaps that undermines my point).

I'm positive that there are kids of all races that feel this same way, who want to see themselves in extraordinary circumstances--to be able to see themselves in a Harry Potter or a Bella--and I think that fantasy can and should be able to do that for them.

I went to the bookstore earlier today, and I was on the hunt for fantasy featuring characters of color. I'm happy to say I found more this visit than I've been able to find before, and I think it's getting better. But it's only in small increments.

(It probably also doesn't help that I'm going to a bookstore in the middle of Utah, one of the whitest places in North America, yet even here I walk through the bookstore and see Latinos and Asians and Middle Easterners and it seems to me that it's also partly the assumptions of booksellers and librarians about the communities they serve--even the whitest places in North America have a significant number of people of color shopping in those bookstores and frequenting the libraries, so it seems to me those kids should be able to feel like they can walk into a bookstore and find books featuring people like themselves, too. This is like Christine's Catch 22--I hear from local book people that their audience is "mostly people like [me]" yet it makes me wonder if that's because what gets ordered to be sold in the shops are books tailored for white Mormons.)

So while I know there are many kids out there looking for similarities in circumstances, there are just as many or more kids looking for different circumstances, and I think that's part of the appeal of speculative fiction. Even realistic problem novels, though, tend to attract as many readers who aren't in those circumstances who are looking to read about extraordinary-to-them circumstances.

So I think both sides of the coin are right--it's *both* the similarities and differences that draw us to read, depending on the interests and desires of the reader at any given moment.

Melinda said...

This also ties into how afraid publishers are about printing covers with a black person, or indeed a person of any ethnicity, on the cover. Remember that debacle about LeGuin's book Powers, and Liar by ... oh drat, I can't remember her name. But both books had protagonists with brown skin, and the early covers used a white person. Insane!

Not to mention that I think it helps against racism if more whites see more races. I grew up in a lily-white town, and when I was a kid we took a trip to Mississippi, where I was suddenly surrounded by blacks. I became even shyer than usual, more deferential, going down the road nodding my head to every black person I saw. Yeah, I was kind of a goof.
My daughter's generation is far more multi-racial than mine, even in my old elementary school, which helps. But whites need to keep re-examining our own attitudes and keep learning. This goes for literature especially.

Melinda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine Marie Alphin said...

I believe that young readers (including teenagers) read to get a handle on who they are. They read to see what the characters in books do in challenging circumstances, and then ask themselves whether they would do the same thing, or something different. Kids and teens who already love to read willingly read about characters like themselves and unlike themselves, making friends with the characters and then approving or disapproving of their decisions at the climax. With each critical evaluation, they are shaping the person they are growing into.

But kids who are not willing readers find it harder to submerge themselves in the world of a book, any book, until they find a doorway inviting them in. They want to find a friend in the book's cast of characters, and they want to measure their own feelings and judgment against that character's, but difficulties in the act of reading, and a story situation that they can't imagine themselves into, can throw up barriers. If the book makes its world welcoming to less willing readers, perhaps they will put in the extra effort to read it, and once they discover the thrill of vicariously sharing the main character's journey, they'll be more willing to try the next book and the next - until they're stretching to read books about characters very different from themselves, and feeling confident about evaluating those characters' decisions in terms of what they as readers would do.

To my mind, books that reflect the worlds of unwilling readers aren't the end of the publishing and librarian's journey to create more readers - they're the beginning of the reader's journey to discover the power of a book to show them themselves.

Leigh said...

Brilliant and good comments, too. Thanks for sharing.

Christine said...

As someone who was once looking for that very same doorway - I worry that will only encourage publishers to continue feeding into a market over saturated with a one-size-fits-all view of ethnicity. This is not a mutually exclusive argument - if you have "B" you can no longer have "A".

Why does every "doorway" have to lead to a slave ship, a plantation, a treeless brownstone lined street, a missing parent, a welfare check, or a civil rights icon with a smattering of jazz, and a live-in grandmother complete with quilt thrown in for happiness.

I grew up disadvantaged in an impoverished urban area and those books still don't describe anything remotely like my life. Those were books I ran away from - too oppressive even with their happy endings. I didn't want to read about someone's fictitious version of "my life." I wanted to test roles that occurred outside of it.

Why don't those books sell well? Because, outside of a school or library, consumers don't want them and our kids won't read them. They certainly aren't clamoring for them at book fairs. And when I'm doing school visits the kids don't want to talk about them. I sometimes do a reading from books selected by the school (almost always mundane or civil rights) - then I sneak in MASTER MAN and NANTA'S LION to much better results)

Kids need the space to create their own heros in their own ways. Instead we keep feeding them bland leftovers from our own angst filled pasts.

Not all reluctant readers are born that way - sometimes, by the lack of options - we create them.

John said...

My thinking isn't that I'm looking for me (or my children) to be reflected in the books I read. Rather, it's the opposite. I want my children exposed to different families, ethnicities, religions, etc. which is why I seek out these books for my child and myself.

Anonymous said...

Since the time marketing and sales took over the power place of editorial and art, the business has been slowly sinking into the mindset of the status quo oriented. I was once blamed by the publisher in front of the editors that my book wasn't selling. This was many years ago. Now I am more savvy. I'd say "Where's your marketing dept? That's *their* job, not mine". Marketing and sales want the creatives to do their jobs (for free) while they get away with book murder and a salary. They have all the control and they know it. AND are not that great at their jobs or there would be no need for this discussion. Too many of them are yakking it up on Facebook when they should be out selling our books.

Anonymous said...

I grow positively orc-like when people point the finger at the marketing department-- like they have some sort of magic marketing bullet they are selfishly refusing to fire. Sure--because they have this amazing track record for making all the very best books also the very best sellers. Not.

Roger Sutton said...

Why do I picture anon 8:16 and anon 12:13 commenting from adjoining cubicles like Dwight and Jim?

Elizabeth said...

This is such a rich area for contemplation and debate that I am only going to attempt to chew off a tiny piece of it here. Or maybe two pieces.

Anonymous 8:16, I really enjoyed your rant! Though since I may well be the industry's #1 time waster on facebook (and am by your definition, one of the "creatives") I can't say I agree with it. Though I do agree that the question of how much influence sales and marketing has on what gets published is a very interesting one.

I wanted to say something to Christine's first comment, above. I no longer agree that it's true, as it may well have been in 2000, that "African American, Asian and Latino authors still get push back when they try to write outside of a narrow boundary." Au contraire. I am a bit sorry to sound so tactical, but most editors and publishers are thrilled to get Latino and African American writers on their lists who write about "non urban, non poor" subjects. We do want "regular" books about "regular" kids and families by writers and artists of all enthnicities. I promise you.

But we can't solve the problem by simply changing the skin color on a picture book character or by making a white character black. I will tell you that I have had both suggested to me by bosses at previous jobs, and I shuddered. Bella Swan is white because, I assert, that's what the author knew (she lives in Utah!) and that was the character who came to her--built out of her own subconscious. Some writers can convincingly write multiple enthnicities, and some cannot.

I think two things are going to be positive forces for change in this area. I follow a lot of teenagers' blogs and twitter accounts, and I spend a lot of time in the YA section of stores. I see a lot of African American and Latino kids blogging about and reading and buying books, and they are about to become our new generation of writers.

Also, I published a fantasy about an African American hero when I was at Simon and Schuster, and it was by an African American author. It sold ok. But when the business has a big hit with a paranormal romance or fantasy and the protagonist is African American or Latino, you can bet we'll see a lot more of those lead characters. I'm sorry that that's the way things work, but everybody loves to jump on a successful bandwagon.

I think the goal is to publish a list of books that, hopefully, speaks to lots of different children about things they recognize and some things they don't. And then blow the horn for those books as loud as we can.

Anonymous said...

back in the day there WERE the kind of books we now miss - e.g. HIS OWN WHERE, by June Jordan, and some publishers welcomed them. but now sociology seems to have taken over (more grant-worthy? easier to catalog?) and we complain of what the institutions have given us

Anonymous said...

I posted basically this comment earlier, on another blog, but since it seems on point I'll work up the idea again here:

I heard an interview on Fresh Air with Robert Siegel, the director of Big Fan. He talked about the importance of casting. He felt that the studio approach — of which he was critical — was not to find the right actor for the part, but to find the most bankable star who wouldn’t be totally crushingly wrong for the part.

That struck me as relevant to publishing. Publishers, authors, illustrators, often look for the character that will be most easily identified with by the largest possible swath of the book-buying public, who won’t be totally wrong for the book. Simple demographics state that that character is usually white; of a vague ethnic background; of no discernible religious tradition or habits (unless he/she observes a secularized holiday); and the kid doesn't live anywhere in particular, either, with the possible exception of New York. Preferably Brooklyn.

Of course, there are some books in which the subject demands a Jewish protagonist, or an African-American protagonist, or Latino, and so on — books that deal with experiences unique to those peoples. So books with Jewish characters skew toward the Holocaust, and books with blacks skew toward slavery and civil rights, and so on.

I’m not saying that racism, subtle and otherwise, isn’t alive and well. But this other simple yet subtle dynamic does a lot to give us the publishing world we have, I think.

Christine said...

Elizabeth - we need to talk. YOU do have authors of color on your list and I've never found you lacking in candor.

However, publishing in general is not as even tempered as you may suggest. The problem has gotten so bad that we had to form an organization for authors of color (mostly published) so we could compare notes in private.

Trust me when I say I am speaking from the experiences of many - some of whom are now publishing under pseudonyms to get past the problem.

I'll send you a dm on twitter.

btw - thank you for that stance about changing color - a lot of us are in agreement with you. Bella wouldn't work as a black girl (frankly - my daughters devoured the series despite constantly screaming she was too stupid to live.) The point of many authors is not to change the skin color and keep every other element the same, but to allow a character to be someone of color and have their ethnicity be relevant without it being the source of the "problem."

Does that make sense?

Tockla said...

Yes to much of what people have said before. When someone like you is completely invisible in the books you read, it sends a subtle message. Having a lesbian mother, and being an avid reader, I didn't realize the meaning of this until I was in my 20s and read a book of essays by children of lesbian, gay and transgender parents. I got so excited reading this book, even as a white, middle class young woman, so had seen many similar protagonists in the books I'd read. So I think it's a false paradigm in a way, that books either reflect or don't reflect their readers. It's a multitude rather than a singularity. And as to the publishing industry, I think there really is a problem based on how the whole system works and who works within it (and I worked in it for 7 years). Partially it's just he way capitalism works, and the sales-driven nature of the institution. But it's also an entrenched way of being and seeing. I've posted my essay on white privilege in children's publishing and would certainly appreciate any comments, especially from writers and people in publishing who have experiences to share. sites.google.com/site/tockla/
Laura Atkins