Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hey, kids, what color are your gatekeepers?

I've been putting off writing about this.  My motivation for blogging comes in spurts. This has been a busy time for my theatre work--with lots of workshops and readings and productions of plays coming up.

I write books, too, of course.  And both my books and my plays often deal with race, either directly or indirectly.  Actually, ALL of my books have race as an important element to the characters or the story.  I don't write books with an all white cast of characters (though if I did, race would still be playing a factor, let's not kid ourselves), because I'm interested in a multi-racial world and I live in a multi-racial family.

As a writer of novels, I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to find publishers for those books.  Sometimes with some success--my first book, Tornado Siren, found a small publisher and sometimes not--I self published my second novel, Moving [a life in boxes], and my third novel, Buried Treasure, about a young black girl and her white adoptive grandfather on a high stakes treasure hunt, remains unpublished.  I'm currently trying to figure out what happens next for a Civil War novel about the escaped slave and national hero (and eventual Congressman), Robert Smalls.

Partly it's my scarcity of success that's made me reluctant to write about gatekeepers in the world of fiction, but I'm not the only one thinking about this stuff.  There's even a whole online campaign now called We Need Diverse Books.  And in the March 16 Sunday New York Times of this year, the late Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher, published a pair of essays under the title, "Where Are The People Of Color in Children's Books?" (The second is actually The Apartheid of Children's Literature.) They talk about the power of books and stories to shape our perception of the world and ourselves.  And why it's important, not just for kids of color to be able to read books that have characters of color in them, but also for white readers, in order to have a more complex view of people who aren't white and come from different backgrounds.

Myers writes:
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

The intro to the article points to a study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, with this killer stat:  "Of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people." You don't have to be a numbers guy like me to have a stat like this make you catch your breath.  This is not saying 93 were BY black writers.  It's saying there were only 93 ABOUT black people. 

There's lots more numbers on their site.  For 2013, only 68 children's books were BY black writers.  Books ABOUT Latinos: 57 (48 written by Latinos).

This doesn't say anything about how they're represented, just whether they're there.  Now, as an adoptive parent of two black children, I've spent a lot of time trying to find books with characters of color that might be of interest to my kids.  And just try finding a middle-grade novel with a black main character that is not about urban problems or violence. They're just not out there. (Well, that depends on how you look at it.  They exist.  Hell, I wrote one.  But they're not being published.)

Here's the crazy thing--when my daughter was born, in 1994, there were actually MORE children's books about African-Americans published, 166, than there were in 2013.  That's right--the number has declined by 43%.  The peak was actually in 1997, at 216.

Is it any wonder that we live in a society where there is so much racial misunderstanding and incomprehension?  (And violence as a result.)  Is it any wonder that the publishing industry flops around like a fish gasping for breath, when in a country where almost 40% of the population are people of color, less than 8% of children's books are about characters of color. 

Christopher Myers wonders at the cause--the "Market" is often blamed.
The closest I can get to the orchestrator of the plot — my villain with his ferret — is The Market. Which I think is what they all point to because The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.
 My experience has been that it's hard to even get close to The Market with a children's book about people of color, or even an adult book about black characters. To get a book contract with a major publisher, your manuscript has to pass through two important gates.  First you need an agent to fall in love with your book, and then you need an editor (with the help of your agent) to fall in love with your book.

Books that will be obvious hits sell for purely business reasons.  It seems clear that they're going to make gobs of money.  But the books that are on the margin--and guess were books about people of color fall?--require that love, that identification.  Because, even though there are zillion bad books and crappy writers out there, there are still thousands and thousands of good and interesting books out there, on all kinds of topics.

And that's where I see a gatekeeper problem.  Because the kinds of rejections I see most often are either Christopher Myers' "the market isn't right for it" or "it just didn't resonate with me."  "I didn't fall in love with it."  Well, from what I've seen, the people making the decisions are almost all white.  (And so are the writers--go to a SCWBI conference sometime.)  Not only are they predominantly white, they also have spent a whole lifetime reading children's books mostly about white people.  Despite being avid readers, and I promise you, editors and agents are voracious readers, they have limited experience with books about people of color.  It's not their fault, really, the books don't exist for them any more than they exist for my kids.

In one search tool that I use, QueryTracker, there are 179 agents listed who represent children's books. That means that in 2013, about half of them didn't sell ANY children's books about black people.  None.

The argument could theoretically be made by agents and editors--"it doesn't matter that I'm white, I'm interested in stories about people of all races and backgrounds."  But the numbers show that to be false.  Or maybe they're interested, but interest is not love, is not identification, is not passion.

Of course, increasing diversity in the workplace is never easy.  NPR had a story last month about the publishing business and its need for diversity.  In it, Dawn Davis (she's black), editor of 37 Ink, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster, says that a recent Pew study shows that college-educationed black women are the people in American most likely to read a book. The market is actually there, but the people with an interest in multi-racial and multi-cultural stories are not in a position to decide which books get published.

This can't change until the big publishers get serious and work harder at recruiting and retaining editors of color, and literary agencies do the same. There has been a lot written about white privilege and race in America over the past few weeks. The publishing business is one of the few places with the power to influence our entire culture and way of thinking, for the better. But to do so, they've got to take some difficult steps and look hard in the mirror.

(By the way, don't think the gatekeeper situation in the theatre world is a whole lot better.  But that's a blog post for another day.)

(And one more P.S.--if you're looking for YA books that have black male characters, I came across this post online that has a nice list of some. 

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