If you were paying attention, last month you may have noticed two editorials running in the New York Times that addressed the lack of diversity in children’s books. Where are People of Color in Children’s Books?, by acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers, and The Apartheid of Children’s Literature by his son, Christopher Myers, both took a hard look at the overwhelmingly white world of children’s books—which must be made to include Young Adult literature as well. Both of these pieces came in the wake of a study conducted by Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which determined that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, a shameful total of only 93 were about people of color (see the depressing infographic, below). As anyone that knows me can tell you, I’m frequently standing on my soapbox, screaming about the lack of diversity in YA (as well as a lack of books for older teen boys), and I really don’t want to start screaming about the same thing all over again. Things are bad. They’ve been bad for a long time. People of color are regularly left out of children’s books and YA books. We know this—at least some of us do—and the question becomes what we are going to do about it.
To be certain, two of the problems are the authors and the publishers. Many of the authors of books for young people are choosing to populate their books with homogenized casts. Meanwhile, publishers, who are the primary gatekeepers of what gets released to the public, are not, for one reason or another, putting out books that reflect much by way of diversity. Maybe the publishers simply aren’t getting the right books, and that’s why there are so few books for young readers of color with lead characters that look like them. But I doubt that’s the case. The reality is that the book publishing industry, much like the comic industry, as well as the film industry, is dismissive of the black audience (and audiences of color, in general), and assumes that they don’t count enough to be a viable market. This is especially true in the world of YA (and children’s books), which seems to be under the impression that black kids and teens don’t read, so they don’t bother putting out books for them.
None of this is news—and if it is, then I hate to be the one delivering this message to you right now. I’m also very sorry to be delivering this next message…we need to start taking responsibility for what we want to see in the books we want young people reading. What do I mean by that?
Well, for one thing we need to stop focusing exclusively on the lack of diversity that we all know about. Yes, it is there, and we must diligently fight to see the scales become more balanced. But we also need to work on promoting and supporting the work that already exists. In the world of YA, Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due have written two great books, Devil’s Wake and the sequel, Domino Falls, neither of which have gotten the proper love and respect that is deserved. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities is populated with a diverse cast, which is something no one seems to mention. Jerry Craft’s middle-reader novel The Offenders is filled with they types of characters that deliver the sort of eclectic, diverse mix that so many other books seem to be lacking. Zetta Elliot’s A Wish After Midnight has been out for more than three years, and yet whenever I hear about the lack of diversity in YA or children’s books, I never hear mention of this author or this book as any sort of balance.
The point I’m trying to get to is this…there are books that are delivering the diversity people like me are looking for, but not enough is being done to talk about them. I know. I know. I know. I’ve only mentioned a few books, but the mention of 4 books is more than is ever mentioned whenever the dialog is started about there not being enough diversity. I get it. You get it. We all get it (or at least some of us get it). But here’s the deal…nobody really cares about us. If they cared, the problem wouldn’t exist. But the problem exists, and we need to find creative ways to get the powers-that-be to care. Jerry Craft self-published The Offenders, just as I self-published Super Justice Force. I guarantee you that if either of us managed to sell a few thousand copies of our book on Amazon, and garnered a few hundred positive reviews, and got a few dozen blogs to write about our books, we’d each have a deal at a major publisher. If Devil’s Wake had the marketing muscle behind it like Hunger Games had, we’d see a major motion picture by now, and instead of 35 reviews on Amazon, there would be several thousand. Devil’s Wake is as good, if not better than Hunger Games, and yet somehow Hunger Games gets mentioned whenever there’s a conversation about diversity in YA. I mean come on…give me a break. Most fans of the Hunger Games missed whatever diversity there was to be found in the book (or its sequels).
I’m not saying that we need to stop fighting for more diversity in YA and children’s literature. We absolutely must keep fighting for it. But to complain about it, while not pointing out the books and the authors that are getting it right, is a terrible waste of time. All it takes is for one or two books—even self-published books—to make a big enough splash and the publishers will take notice. If a YA book with a black lead character (who appears on the cover) ever sold enough to make it on a best sellers list, we’d start seeing more of books with black leading characters (on the cover). This is why it is so important to leave positive book reviews on Amazon. This is why it is so important to talk about the books you enjoy on social media. This is why it is imperative to talk to teachers, librarians, and parents, and tell them about the books you think are worth investigating (and also encourage them to leave reviews and spread the word). There are books out there that do the work to create worlds of diversity, with complex characters of color that act and behave like fully developed human beings, and not sad stereotypes. It is our job to support these books and the people who write them, so that there will be more of both in the future.