Of over 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people, a study reveals.
The data from the US shows that 2.9% of books checked were about black people, a startling statistic when you consider over 12% of America’s population is black.
Having kept her silence in the immediate aftermath of the National Book Awards, Jacqueline Woodson (in a dignified piece written for the New York Times) finally gave her response to Daniel Handler’s remarks:
As I walked away from the stage to a standing ovation after my acceptance speech, it was the last place in the world I thought I’d hear the watermelon joke — directed by the M.C., Daniel Handler, at me. “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon,” he said. “Just let that sink in your mind.” Daniel and I have been friends for years. Last summer, at his home on Cape Cod, he served watermelon soup and I let him know I was allergic to the fruit. I was astonished when he brought this up before the National Book Award audience — in the form of a wink-nudge joke about being black.
In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.
Jacqueline Woodson was already the author of 28 children’s books, most of them award-winning, when her Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last week. She is a three-time recipient of Newbery Honors, and she’d been nominated for the NBA before. Her achievement, however, was swiftly eclipsed by coverage of the racist joke that Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, made after she got off the stage. In a phone interview with the Guardian she declined to comment on the firestorm, though she also said she will, eventually. “I’m trying to figure out how to think about it,” she said.
“I once had a bookseller tell me, ‘Your books are just for black children and we don’t have that many black children in this area,'” Malorie Blackman says.
She’s serious. It’s serious. We’re silent; then she laughs, quickly. “I haven’t had this said to me in quite some time,” she says, “but we still have a way to go in this country to diversify books. And that isn’t just for books, that’s films and TV, too.”
Some recommendations from Bustle:
This past week The New York Times published an op-ed titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The writer, children’s book author Walter Dean Myer, notes that out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black children. Having protagonists of color in children’s and YA books gives a wider readership insight into different spaces populated with different faces, but that’s not all it does. It also gives children of color a sense of who they are and who can they can be, the way children’s books have done for white kids since there have been children’s books. So, in tribute to authors who push for diversity in their characters, we’ve gathered up our favorite YA novels featuring people of color. But don’t just bookmark these novels as gifts for teens. These reads are so nuanced and complex they’re good for adults, too.
Christopher Myers writes an important piece in the New York Times
The mission statements of major publishers are littered with intentions, with their commitments to diversity, to imagination, to multiculturalism, ostensibly to create opportunities for children to learn about and understand their importance in their respective worlds. During my years of making children’s books, I’ve heard editors and publishers bemoan the dismal statistics, and promote this or that program that demonstrates their company’s “commitment to diversity.” With so much reassurance, it is hard to point fingers, but there are numbers and truths that stand in stark contrast to the reassurances. The business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find.
Christopher Myers’ essay in the Horn Book is so splendid it is difficult to pick out one short quotation. I urge you to read the whole piece…
There is some idea that the percentage of books featuring children of color ought to reflect the percentage of children of color in the country. One hears echoes of this idea in all of the “mirroring, reflecting” rhetoric that pervades discussions of literature for young people. From the countless literacy programs that tout the “one good book” notion of creating lifelong readers to the endless anecdotes of authors, illustrators, and readers who identify this or that book in which “they saw themselves for the first time.” While these narratives are often true and heart-warming in their way, this shock of recognition, I think, misses the major point of literature. Literature is a place for imagination and intellect, for stretching the boundaries of our own narrow lives, for contextualizing the facts of our nonfictions within constellations of understanding that we would not be able to experience from the ground, for bringing our dreams and fictions into detail, clarity, and focus. Books allow us a bird’s-eye view of our own lives, and especially how our lives relate to those lives around us.
Part of me would like to make an individual book for each and every child I come across, draw careful sweet portraits of all the Trayvons, Sams, Chitras, Sheilas, and Sadias. But I am less interested in that simple mirroring than in making stories that define the kinds of communities in which those children will grow up. The dual impulse and constant stress of our industry is this tension between the way our work shapes culture, our innovation and imagination, and the way it reflects culture, our inclusion in the amorphous and ever-blameworthy scapegoat that is “the market.” As important as that shock of recognition may be to a child of color, I believe that creating an understanding of what a diverse society ought to look like for all children is more important. I want the kids who read my books to have a framework with which to understand the people they might meet, or even the people that they are becoming. I want the children who see my books to see an encounter with the other as an opportunity, not a threat.
The rhetoric of the trial hinged on precisely this question: whether or not this young black boy, with his bag of candy and his iced tea and his sweatshirt, was a threat. Here is also where I see my responsibility. Although it is unfair, and although it comes with an intricate history, I have the opportunity with every book I make to write this boy as even less a threat than he already isn’t. I get to do in a very public way, that which I do personally every day.
Years ago I stopped wearing hoodies. I found that particular article of clothing would often run me afoul of authorities and had women in elevators clutching their purses ever tighter. But I have found that even when I am not wearing this supposedly threatening piece of clothing, I still wear it metaphorically. My speech, my bearing — so much of it is calculated to direct others’ expectations of me, the associations that come from my race, my metaphorical hoodie. Every meeting with a publisher or media person in which I surprise them with my knowledge of ballet, Vietnamese history, classical mythology, international development, or semiotic theory (topics that I suppose I am not expected to know); every “surprise” of my own identity serves to take that metaphorical hoodie off.
Good to see the new Laureate’s role and words being listened to and taken seriously from the off.
In this interesting piece, Howard Jacobson considers two of Malorie Blackman’s statements:
The first is: “I still remember feeling I was totally invisible in the world of literature.” And the second: “I understand you need to learn about Henry VIII, but when I was young I wanted to learn about something that felt more relevant.”
Jacobson politely but convincingly picks these statements apart to reveal a profound disagreement.
The 51-year-old author of the Noughts & Crosses teenage book series vowed to use her two-year tenure to “bang the drum” for diversity, saying it was vital for young people to learn about different cultures.
“Children will go with any story as long as its good but white adults sometimes think that if a black child’s on the cover it is perhaps not for them,” she said.
“Books teach children to see the world through the eyes of others and empathise with others. It’s about the story.”
Blackman, a London-born author whose parents came to Britain from Barbados, said there was a distinct lack of black and Asian children in picture books.
She said that when she was younger, she never once read a book that featured a black child, which left her feeling “totally invisible”.