It's taken decades, but it seems that there is finally a consensus -- and an urgency -- about creating more diverse books for children and teens. There are still mountains to move, of course: just look at the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center, which show that only 12 percent of children's books published in 2016 were created by authors and illustrators of color.
But there are definite signs of real change. The creation of We Need Diverse Books, is one key sign of change. Other signs include the fact that Simon & Schuster has established the first imprint for Muslim children's books, Salaam Reads. And now Kirkus, a professional review journal, routinely notes the race of characters in books that it reviews as a way of "unmaking the white default" in the world of children's books.
At a recent program hosted by the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C., two other approaches to diversifying children's literature were put in the spotlight. Both approaches are 25 years old. One approach, Africa Access, was founded by Brenda Randolph as a way of highlighting accurate, well-written books about Africa for children. The other approach, First Book, was established by Kyle Zimmer as a way of using market power to push publishers towards offering more diverse kids' books.
Randolph opened her talk by giving a bit of personal background. She grew up in Richmond, Va., at a time when the public libraries were segregated. Later she encountered a different form of discrimination as a young librarian at a mostly white private school in a wealthy Boston suburb. When Randolph tried to convince the head librarian to jettison some racist and inaccurate books about Africa from the school's collection, she was consistently rebuffed.
"Things have changed since then," Randolph said. "Some of the earliest stereotypes have disappeared, but we still see stereotypes in other way."
To ensure more accuracy in children's books about Africa, Randolph founded Africa Access in 1989. Her idea was to assemble a team of experts who are scholars in African studies and have them review children's and teen books that focus on Africa. With that effort successfully up and running, Randolph then had an "epiphany" one day in 21992. "Instead of talking about what's wrong with books about Africa, how about flipping it around and celebrating books getting it right."
Thus was born the Children's Africana Book Awards, given annually to the best books about Africa for kids and teens. "We try to recognize as many books as we can," Randolph said. In recent years, Randolph's organization has become part of the Center for African Studies at Howard University. Africa Access also now celebrates Read Africa week by spotlighting a particular African country and offering resources about it to kids, families and teachers; this year's country is Ghana.
"One of the questions I get a lot from kids is 'Do you speak African?'" Randolph noted. "That's one of the reasons that we decided to focus on a country at a time."
While Randolph has focused her efforts at diversifying children's literature at the micro level, Zimmer has worked at it from the macro level. Zimmer said she decided to create First Book when she read a statistic that show that 79 percent of 4th graders from low-income families don't read proficiently.
"It's not surprising, but I'll never get over it," Zimmer said. Knowing that low-income kids generally have much less access to book, Zimmer realized that just getting books into the hands of those children would be a good start. And to do that, Zimmer created a system for tracking publishers' left-over inventory. The publishing industry is built on a consignment model, meaning that publishers take back from bookstores whatever books don't sell. With First Book's National Book Bank, Zimmer offered publishers a way to both store and manage that left-over inventory; in return, First Book is able to ensure that the books are sent to Title 1 schools and other places where they are most needed.
"While I love the First Book National Book Bank, it doesn't really fix the problem -- it's an end-of-the-pipeline solution," Zimmer said. To diversify children's literature, "we really need to change publishing," she added.
So ten years ago, Zimmer created the First Book Marketplace. The idea is simple but effective: First Book agrees to buy lots of copies of particular books on a non-refundable basis -- not on the consignment model. As she said: "When you say that to publishers in New York, choirs of angels sing." As a result of the Marketplace, First Book now has become "one of the specialty book buyers in the U.S.," and tries to use its market powers to push publishers towards offering more diverse books, Zimmer said.
For example, it was First Book's request that led to the first-ever bilingual (Spanish-English) edition of Goodnight Moon, the classic bedtime tale by Margaret Wise Brown, Zimmer noted. So far, First Book has bought and given out 100,000 copies of the book. "It's all about how to use the various levers and knobs in the marketplace to elevate the demand for diverse books," she said, adding that reducing their financial risks allows publishers to take chances on more diverse books, including those by first-time authors and illustrators of color. "We leave it to the experts as to what the content should be. Our job is to make sure that the buying tracks that."
End Notes: Thanks to Brenda Randolph and Kyle Zimmer for sharing their visions, energy and hope for the future! Thanks also to my Children's Book Guild program co-chairs, Maria Salvadore and Alison Morris, for putting together such a thought-provoking, timely event. And thanks to Guild President Kem Sawyer for her great flexibility in securing a new program venue just a few hours after we learned that our original venue would be closed in honor of #DayWithoutImmigrants.