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Publishers Speak Out About Diversity: An Interview with the CBC Diversity Committee

CBC Diversity badgeLibrarians care about diversity in children’s books — quite a lot, it turns out. But they’re not the only ones. Many publishers, authors, readers, and librarians are equally impassioned about the idea of promoting a more diverse body of literature for children and young adults.

I wrote a post in December on whitewashed, obscured, and ambiguous representations of race on young adult book covers, “It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers,” and a follow-up piece on “Showing Our True Colors: YA Covers That Got It Right in 2012.” The response was stunning. The posts garnered dozens of thought-provoking comments from authors, readers, librarians, and publishers. What I took away from reading these responses is that the issue is a complex one, rife with frustration and misunderstandings. The first step forward is honest and collaborative communication between those who care about the issue.

A group of publishing professionals came together just over a year ago to start this process among themselves. CBC Diversity — an initiative of the national, nonprofit trade association of children’s book publishers, the Children’s Book Council — had representatives speak at the ALA Midwinter conference in Seattle in January about their mission to promote diversity at every level of the publishing industry. They shared with me that the Hub posts in December sparked discussion around their committee table, and they agreed to keep the conversation going by letting me interview them.

CBC Diversity is excited to start talking with librarians about these tough diversity issues, and their interview, posted verbatim below, covers topics ranging from their perspective on the challenges of publishing a more diverse body of children’s literature, how to prevent stereotyping, and how characters are depicted on book covers. Hopefully this can be the start of many productive conversations to come between librarians, readers, and publishers.

This CBC Diversity Committee is barely more than one year old. What inspired you all to create the Committee?

The CBC Diversity Committee was originally founded by a small group of editors passionate about publishing books by and about people from a variety of backgrounds. The editors, all from New York City-based publishing houses, would meet informally to discuss questions of diversity, authenticity, the need for stories from the margins, challenges in publishing new voices, strategies for finding new voices etc. They also grappled with what might be done to make the staff at their publishing houses more diverse. It was a lively forum for discussion, but as all the members of the group were full time editors with time-consuming responsibilities to their authors, illustrators, and publishing houses, it was difficult to build much momentum.

Then, in 2011, one of the members met someone from the CBC at an industry event and learned that the CBC had a similar passion for building the diversity dialogue and so they decided to join their efforts and create the CBC Diversity Committee. With the enthusiasm, support, and resources of the CBC, this group was then able to start channeling their passions into concrete steps. As a result, the CBC Diversity Committee has hosted events for agents and editors interested in publishing diverse books, created panel discussions (on book jackets, and an awareness panel at ALA), hosted discussion groups for publishers, launched an active blog with posts by committee members and wonderful guest bloggers, and done outreach to high school and college students in an effort to educate and excite students about careers in publishing.

And that’s where we are today — hoping to be another resource in this complex and essential dialogue about children’s books.

The CBC Diversity Committee is uniquely placed as part of the Children’s Book Council, the trade association for children’s book publishers. What do you think you can do to create change from within the industry?

Simply by existing, the Committee inspires a conversation, and that’s important. That conversation is:

  • How can books be better?
  • How can they (books) reach more people?
  • How can we depict more people (in those books) and communicate their visions?

Committee members began the first meeting with a frank self-examination.

How can we change the way we acquire and publish books? Where we do we fall short?

Having this conversation and subjecting ourselves to a more rigorous standard in our own jobs, even if it involves risk, is key. Every day publishing staffers make business decisions regarding everything from acquisition to BISAC coding to cover design that can reinforce a myopic view of an audience that is generally assumed to be largely homogeneous. If we change, that’s a start.

There’s a great deal that we’re doing practically to create broad change, listed in the response to [your first question]. We’re in constant contact and communication with authors and agents, editorial, design, sales, and marketing/publicity departments, and librarians and booksellers. Working with the CBC allows staff across all the industry to come together and share experiences and ideas.

Where are we on diversity in children’s literature today as opposed to five or ten years ago?

We’ve made progress — particularly when it comes to gay and lesbian characters in YA, and in representing more immigrant groups, and cultures. In recent years, the focus has shifted from not only publishing more diverse children’s books to also emphasizing the importance of accurately and authentically portraying those stories, characters, and backgrounds. But we need to see more.

What do you see as the major challenges to publishing a more diverse body of children’s literature?

There are several challenges. Two of them are major.

  1. The lack of senior-level diversity players in publishing companies who are making key decisions about which books are acquired, how those books are positioned and sold, and what the covers on those books look like. As a publishing community, we’ve come a long way in this area, but there’s still a long road ahead.
  2. The ongoing perception that diversity titles are second-class citizens that are less desirable, and are thus deemed less profitable. Assumptions about what makes a book “commercial” feeds self-reinforcing beliefs to which we all subscribe. An obvious example — booksellers see that paranormal romances with Caucasian girls on covers sell; they order more books from publishers; and we publishers acquire more paranormal romances that feature Caucasian girls … or maybe, a cast with of three or four best friends, one of whom is a minority.

Other challenges?

  • Lifting the visibility of diverse books and making sure the discoverability is there. We must encourage Sales & Marketing to expand to new markets in order to reach new readers. We need new approaches in marketing and in book selling to make sure our books are getting into the right hands.
  • Our industry also has the tendency to focus on the desire to sympathize, which can obliterate creativity. The notion that a book should be evaluated based on reader response — whether or not a reader could “connect” with the protagonist — is an incredibly narrow approach to storytelling. And by over-emphasizing it, we devalue anything that we can’t emotionally invest in. No matter how open-minded the individual, it would be rare for someone to be able to transcend their own experience enough to sympathize with everything … and that’s okay. We want to offer honest, powerful stories that will make readers curious about other cultures and points of view. But the reader doesn’t always have to “connect” with the protagonist.

In addition to lack of diversity among children’s books, there isn’t enough diversity among children’s book writers — and many authors writing diverse characters don’t come from a place of diversity themselves. Do you see those as being impediments to creating a more diverse body of children’s literature?

Making a greater effort to find those writers is crucial. Agents can be our allies and partners here. Bringing on more diverse writers from other cultures is one of the main goals of our committee, which is why one of our initiatives is to reach out to writing workshops and organizations such as the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators to encourage developing authors, whatever their background, to be aware of the importance of diversity. We also don’t want to discourage anyone from writing about another culture. The goal here is to offer tips on how to write characters, experiences, and stories authentically.

When children’s books do feature characters of color, they often obscure or choose not to show the character’s race on the cover. What motivates those decisions?

Publishing is a business, and it’s most likely that these decisions stem from the sales, aka the bottom line, of an industry that is in a profound state of flux and uncertainty. This kind of cover may be an attempt to make the book appeal to the widest readership. But also keep in mind that in the past the type of books that typically feature diverse characters on the cover were “issue” books, books that don’t usually have strong trade commercial appeal, regardless of whether or not they feature diversity — the “quiet” stories.

We must consider how to publish excellent books that sell at a level that’s not only profitable, but leads by example.

Some librarians have noted that some books on the CBC Diversity’s GoodReads bookshelf represent stereotypes rather than truly diverse characters. What can your member publishers do to improve in this area and ensure that their books depict characters’ backgrounds as accurately as possible?

This change needs to happen at the acquisitions stage. First, we need more diverse editorial staffing. And all editors must find writers with authentic voices. Authors and editors must be sensitive; it’s easy to have good intentions and still unknowingly offend someone from a background that is not yours. Any author should have the freedom to write about someone from another culture, and they must do thorough research, and fully imagine that world and those characters.

The Goodreads list is there to show diverse books published by the CBC member publishers that are currently available to readers. It is not meant to be a qualitative or “recommended” list. Each librarian/teacher/reader can make their own decisions on which books they want to bring into the classroom, or home. As we publish more authentic and well written, well researched books, the list will grow in a positive way.

What do you think librarians can do to push for greater diversity in children’s literature beyond just buying books that represent that diversity?

Feature these books prominently in displays and booklists, build programs around them, introduce children and families to books from many cultures through story time, book clubs, films based on the books, teen groups where they share what they’re reading and watching. Nurture book clubs in schools and libraries where students from all backgrounds discuss the kinds of characters they’d like to see and the kinds of diverse books they’d like to read. Purely from a business perspective, these book clubs would provide great information to have as a publisher.

The change needs to happen on all levels, including within the school/library system, so we need more librarians from diverse backgrounds too!

Do you think there are ways for librarians, publishers, book sellers, and other stakeholders to come together to work together on these issues going forward?

Yes! The Committee is exploring opportunities for this to happen. Publishers need to better communicate how they make business decisions, to librarians in particular. Above all, we need more conversation! Come to the discussion with a positive, supportive outlook. Criticism should be constructive, and the main goal is to keep the conversation going and making sure diversity remains at the forefront of our minds, collectively. We have to be willing to ruffle feathers and have our own feathers ruffled.

— Annie Schutte, currently reading Pinned by Sharon Flake

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  1. Can I add that we need to make a push to stop calling those books “diverse books” and “multicultural books” if we want to emphasize that they are for everyone? I get that at the moment it’s somewhat of a necessary term, but I think it also continues to reiterate that they’re books for “those people” and about “those people” and therefore not relevant to “normal people.” I actually wrote about that recently on my personal blog.

    • I have to disagree. The problem of discovery is difficult enough. When I give talks to parents, teachers and librarians on the subject of adding diversity and multi-cultural books to their collections, one issue that always comes up is how to find these books. They are out there, but without a label finding them is difficult (to say the least). Diversity and multiculturalism is not for “them.” Books help all of us expand our horizons. What does it do to so-called normal people if certain faces and names and themes are ALWAYS absent in their books? We have to name them so we can find them.

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