Attempts to diversify lily-white kid lit have been, well, complicated.
One afternoon last fall, I found myself reading my picture book The Sea Serpent and Me to a group of schoolchildren in the island nation of Grenada. The story is about a little girl who befriends a tiny serpent that falls out of her bathroom faucet. I had thought it would appeal to children who lived by the sea, but as I looked at their uncomprehending faces, I realized how wrong I was. It wasn’t just my American accent and unfamiliar vocabulary, but the story’s central dilemma: The girl wants to keep the serpent at home with her, but as each day passes, he grows larger and larger.
“What do you think she should do?” I asked, holding up an illustration of the serpent’s coils spilling out of the bathtub.
“Kill him and cook him,” one kid suggested.
It took me a few seconds to understand that he wasn’t joking. If an enormous sea creature presented itself to you, of course you’d eat it! Talk about first-world problems.
I think of that kid from time to time when I need to remind myself that my worldview is pretty limited. Within five years, more than half of America’s children and teenagers will have at least one nonwhite parent. But when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at 3,200 children’s books published in the United States last year, it found that only 14 percent had black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main characters. Meanwhile, industry data collected by publisher Lee & Low and others suggest that roughly 80 percent of the children’s book world—authors and illustrators, editors, execs, marketers, and reviewers—is white, like me.
Writers and scholars have bemoaned the whiteness of children’s books for decades, but the topic took on new life in 2014, when the influential black author Walter Dean Myers and his son, the author and illustrator Christopher Myers, wrote companion pieces in the New York Times‘ Sunday Review asking, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” A month later, unwittingly twisting the knife, the industry convention BookCon featured an all-white, all-male panel of “superstar” children’s book authors. Novelist Ellen Oh and like-minded literary types responded with a Twitter campaign—#WeNeedDiverseBooks—that spawned more than 100,000 tweets.
Most hashtag campaigns go nowhere, but Oh managed to harness the momentum. We Need Diverse Books is now a nonprofit that offers awards, grants, and mentorships for authors, internships aimed at making the industry more inclusive, and tools for promoting diverse books. Among the first batch of grant recipients was A.C. Thomas, a former teen rapper who sold her young-adult Black Lives Matter narrative in a 13-house auction. (A feature film is already in the works.)
Problem solved? Not so fast. For years, well-meaning people up and down the publishing food chain agreed that diverse books are nice and all, but—and here voices were lowered to just-between-us volume—they don’t sell. People of color, it was said, simply don’t purchase enough children’s books. But after studying the market last year, the consumer research firm Nielsen urged publishers to embrace “multicultural characters and content.” Nielsen found that even though 77 percent of children’s book buyers were white, ethnic minorities purchased more than their populations would predict—Hispanics, for example, were 27 percent more likely than the average American bookworm to take home a kids’ book. Yet the market for diverse books “can’t just be people of color,” says Phoebe Yeh, the Chinese American VP and publisher at Crown Books for Young Readers. “It has to be everyone.”