Children’s book publishers have always looked to the school market to find niches for their catalog. I remember the days when creating a new Reading or Language Arts program meant that reps from publishing houses would give presentations of their catalog and leave us with piles of awesome books. It’s big money to get into an educational anthology. Something that many writers don’t think about when they’re penning books, but it’s good money, and steady money at that (once you get your cut from the publishing house, that is).
As the editor of those anthologies, my job was to find books that were at the right level, satisfied themes, were high interest, and did a delicate balance with ethnicity percentages that reflected population statistics. But now that Common Core asks educators to use more diverse literature, there is far more literature about non-white cultures in current educational programs than there was just five years ago. This is from my own observation from the many educational programs I’ve worked on in the last ten years.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of diversity in literature. Mitali Perkins noted that the diversity in published kids’ lit does not match up to population statistics. The CCBC notes that when you compare numbers of published children’s books to authors/subjects of color year by year it’s dismal to downright embarrassing. And it’s not getting better. Author Colleen Mondor has pretty much had it with the diversity problem, and links to other notable kid publishing dustups in a post. (She also mentions my favorite kerfuffle: the Liar cover.)
There seems to be an ingrained idea that children’s books about different cultures don’t sell. But where are the actual figures on that? Seriously, if anyone has those figures, please pass them on. If your character is non-white, non-male, and non-straight, your book may get relegated to a marginal niche market. Don’t believe me? Hear it from a white male author.
This isn’t just a literature problem. Or an author problem. A recent study links people’s levels of empathy with how much literary fiction they read. Kids’ lit is not literary fiction. But is it really that far a jump to understand that connecting with diverse cultures might be aided by reading about them? Some connect recent social hot-button topics to a dangerous lack of diversity.
But that brings me back to the Common Core State Standards, which seeks to bring a more diverse range of literature to the classroom. Publishers that I’ve worked with in the last year have been looking to meet Common Core standards which means they are seeking diverse materials. And because the old multicultural standbys are, well, OLD, they’re looking for fresh new writers and books. Those of us who represent diverse cultures, or write about them should be happy about that.
The change that children’s literature needs may not come with a march, or a protest or grassroots effort. The change we’ve been looking for may come from a series of codes like this one: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.9 Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures. Which is not everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.