Reading Race: Diversity in Publishing by Lucie Pereira

In October, the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing hosted a panel on the topic of diversity in children’s and YA literature, moderated by WLP professor Jabari Asim, the editor-in-chief of the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis and the author of the recently released picture book Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis. The panel consisted of Lesléa Newman, a prolific author and editor whose work includes her groundbreaking and controversial children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies; Vicky Smith, the children’s and teen editor for Kirkus Reviews, which recently made the decision to identify the races of characters within their reviews; and Connie Hsu, senior editor at Macmillan’s Roaring Brook Press, a company whose children’s books have won numerous awards in recent years.

This discussion came at an appropriate time, as publishing’s diversity problem is just beginning to receive more attention. In the past few years, the We Need Diverse Books campaign, begun as a Twitter hashtag in 2014, has launched an effort to bring more awareness to the lack of diversity in publishing. According to a 2015 survey published by Lee and Low Books, the publishing industry is 79 percent white, with that percentage jumping even higher when narrowed to various positions—for instance, book reviewers are 89 percent white, and those working at the executive level in the industry are 86 percent white. Overall, publishing is dominated by straight, cisgender, white women.

These demographics clearly have a profound influence on the kinds of books that get published. A yearly study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center revealed that the We Need Diverse Books movement did make an impact—in 2014, 14 percent of children’s books published were by or about people of color, a significant increase from just 10 percent the previous year. While progress is always worth celebrating, clearly we have a long way to go.

Newman, as an author, talked about the alienating feeling of not having representation, and pointed out that children are not able to articulate this feeling. She explained that she wrote and self-published Heather Has Two Mommies after a mother approached her lamenting the fact that she couldn’t find any books for her child featuring a family that looked like theirs. The book, which has faced threats of banning and censorship since its publication, is now hailed by its editor as a “modern classic.”

When the conversation turned to the subject of white writers portraying characters of color, Newman emphasized the importance of doing your research and examining your intentions. White allies, she said, should first ask themselves why they want to write a story and whether they are the ones who should write it.

Smith, a seasoned book reviewer and editor, spoke to the power of reviews to bring books by and about marginalized people to the attention of the consumer. She also touched on the delicacy of addressing subjects like race in the industry, especially in regards to Kirkus‘s decision to mention the race of the characters in all children’s and young adult book reviews. While some critics of the decision argue that race should not matter in books that do not specifically deal with racial issues, Smith maintains that it’s important for parents to be able to expose their children to literature about people of color that does not relegate these characters to historical periods and racialized contexts. Specifying the characters’ races in all book reviews enables parents to find representations of children of color just being children. It also combats the idea that a character whose race is unnamed is automatically assumed to be white, which Smith refers to in her Kirkus Reviews article on the matter as “the white default.”

In the review process, race comes into play in other ways. Should books about people of color always be reviewed by people of color? Is it disrespectful to consistently assign books about people of color to reviewers of color? As a Kirkus editor, Smith says that although she, like everyone, has made mistakes, she tries to use what she knows about both the book and the reviewer to create a pairing in which each book has the best chance of earning a favorable review.

Before a book makes it into Smith’s hands to be evaluated, it must first go through the process of being acquired, developed, and published by a publishing house such as Roaring Brook Press. Hsu was able to give insights into how this process works and whether diversity is a prominent factor in a publisher’s decision to take on a book. This is where the demographics of the publishing industry really have an impact—Newman remarked that in all her years of writing, she has never had an editor of color. Asim mentioned that when he was trying to publish his book Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, he encountered an editor who did not know who Booker T. Washington was.

Despite the risk of white editors being less receptive to books about characters of color, Hsu said that these days, diversity is definitely something that is discussed when a publishing company is deciding whether to acquire a manuscript; in recent years, she said, having a character of color is considered a bonus for a manuscript.

All three panelists expressed hope for the future of diversity in publishing, and if they are any indication of current attitudes, there are already serious advocates for better representation working within the industry. With the momentum of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, diversity is starting to take center stage in children’s and young adult publishing.

As emerging writers and editors headed into the publishing industry, it’s essential that Emerson’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing students have a grasp on the relevance of diversity, inclusion, and representation in publishing, and are prepared to advocate for change.

Lucie Pereira