Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Are Children’s Books Too White?

One of the more interesting books on racism can be found in a book that examines racism in book publishing’s children literature industry.  Author Philip Noel penned a book that critiques the history and current state of children’s books. It shows us forcefully what needs to be done to root our racism in our kids’ books.

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?  The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and The Need for Diverse Books really provokes, educates, and challenges us.  The Oxford University Press book claims that we can’t ignore the problem any longer, saying:  

If people who create children’s culture fail to engage in such self-examination, they risk continuing to transmit the misery of racism to a new generation… Racism in American children’s literature and culture has not receded into the past because America has yet to reckon with how central racist oppression is to American history and identity.”

He has the statistics to back this up.  First, let’s look at the book industry that produces our books.  Depending on the survey, American publishing is between 79 and 89 percent white.  He writes:  “The publishing industry’s Whiteness either prevents it firm seeing its institutional biases. The well-intentioned, good-hearted people in publishing are no match for the entrenched implicit policies and practices that govern the workplace.”

Nel cites another study from 2011, where over 600 YA books published that year were looked at to see how often non-whites were featured on the book covers.  Only 1.2% showed a black character.  Over 90% of the covers featured a white character.

Another study, this one by Cooperative Children’s Book Center, tracks books by and about people of color in The United States.  Of the 3400 books it received in 2015, only 199 were by black authors and just 269 were about black people.  It’s a slight improvement from 2002, the first year it tracked such things, when 69 of 3169 were penned by African Americans.

The question of diversity in children’s books has been raised before.  In 1965, All-White World of Children’s Books was released.  More than a half-century later we still wonder why non-white characters are so scarce in children’s books.

“Children’s literature needs to drastically increase not just the presence of people of color,” writes Nel, “but the variety of their lived experiences.  It’s why children’s publishing needs more editors of color who recognize diverse stories as publishable.”

Nel provides 20 steps to create an environment for anti-racist children’s literature to flourish.  “To dismantle our children’s literature apartheid, we must change the ways we produce, promote, read, and teach literature for young people,” he writes.  

Here are some of his strategies:

1.      Commit to buying diverse books and titles by non-white authors.

2.      Recognize that personal racism is often unconscious, and that systemic racism is typically invisible.

3.      Publish diverse books.

4.      Support a US Anti-Racist Education Act because “racism is a national emergency that threatens democracy.”

5.      Support groups like the Council on International Books for Children, diversityinYA.com, nameorg.org, readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com, and weneeddiversebooks.org.

6.      Be a resistant, skeptical reader – and encourage others to read critically.

The book makes some powerful points about racism with the book industry and its impact on children’s books but I believe it goes too far to make a claim that Dr. Seuss wrote with prejudice or that Cat in the Hat was somehow a stereotypical figure.  Nel’s assertions corrupt Dr. Seuss and anyone who loves his stories will want to dismiss Nel’s attacks.

He also examines whether books should be scrubbed clean of racist references such as editions of Huckleberry Finn without the n-word used.  Some children’s classics are under threat because today’s examination of the past causes some to revise and alter textual elements.  Does it serve society best to leave the books in their original form so as to spur a dialogue about it – or is it best to remove or edit controversial or offensive text and just act as if nothing was ever wrong?  It’s debatable.

Below are select excerpts from a book that’s sure to make you think and challenge how you feel about children’s literature:

Institutional Racism
“We often fail to see structural racism because of the widespread belief that only actively racist behavior counts as truly racist.  Nearly everyone recognizes that calling an African American the n-word is racist, but far fewer people will concede that an award-winning author who has to self-publish her stories about African American children also may be experiencing institutional racism. “

Mainstream Presses Should Embrace Diversity
“The fact that writers of color nevertheless have to seek independent presses or self-publish is a measure of the considerable distance between mainstream children’s publishing and the multicultural society in which we live.  That authors and artists of color need to seek indies or to self-publish illustrates both the persistence of Jim Crow in corporate publishing and the crucial role that non-mainstream publishers have played in supporting diverse voices in children’s books.”

Diverse Books Are Needed
“Racism is resilient, wily, and adaptable.  Combat it in one form, and it mutates, finding expression in a new one.  This is why we are still asking where the books for children of color are – though we are asking this question in different ways than we were fifty years ago.  Thanks to the activists who have come before us, there are now many more books for young people of African descent, Asian heritage, Latino/a backgrounds, and indigenous cultures.  However, since the percentage of non-White characters, we ask for more - we need diverse books.”

Publishing Industry Is Too White
“The Whiteness of children’s publishing Whitens what kinds of stories get told, and consequently what kinds of stories we are inclined to imagine.  According to Publishers Weekly’s 2015 survey, 89 percent of people employed in the industry identify as White or Caucasian.  Only 5 percent identify as Asian, 3 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as African American. Lee & Low’s 2015 survey yielded comparable results:  79 percent of those working in publishing identified as White or Caucasian, 7 percent as Asian/Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, 6 percent as Hispanic/Latino/Mexican and 4 percent as African American.  Those numbers do not represent the population at large, nor do the books published each year (fig. 5.1).  In 2014 only 11 percent of children’s books published that year were about people of color – and the number by people of color was only 8 percent.  Furthermore, look more closely at the 11 percent or the 8 percent, and you’ll notice something else:  realism, historical novels, and nonfiction are, by far, the most frequent genre categories.”

The World Of Children’s Literature That’s Needed
“It’s up to all of us to change the status quo, allowing children of all races to see themselves in a panorama of literary experiences.  If we all work toward such a change, then that takes some of the pressure off writers and artists of color.  Instead of having to spend so much time as activists, they can devote more time to being artists.  Instead of having to find the space to publish, market, and sell their own books, they can rely upon a publisher to help get their books out into the world.  If we create this change, then instead of having to forcibly integrate themselves into narratives that exclude them, non-White children will learn that they are welcome in all genres.  They will take for granted that they can defeat the evil wizard, invent the technology that saves the planet, or lead the rebellion against the dystopian regime.  Because of course they can do these things – their stories will have been telling them so for all of their lives.  This is the world of children’s literature that we must create.”

Nurturing A New Generation
“As we enter a period of backlash against equal rights, I still believe that children’s literature and culture are among the best places to imagine a better future.  Books tell children they belong (or don’t belong) not only to a broader community of readers, but also in their neighborhoods, their schools, and their country.   Apps and eBooks also tell children who matters enough to be represented, and who does not.  Popular films, too, challenge stereotypes, or reinforce them, or do a bit of both.  All culture tells us who is deserving of our care, and who is not.  Via diverse books and their advocates, we can and must nurture a new generation that is less susceptible to bigotry and the many wounds it inflicts.”

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs 

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