A PICTURE BOOK DIVERSITY CONUNDRUM

white-people-do-something

Kara Springer’s new piece at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. (image: http://streetsdept.com)

This morning I read a post over at Writers’ Rumpus focussing on what role non-marginalized writers can and should have in the diverse books movement. I’m a white woman writing picture books, and it is a question that I think about a lot.

My first picture book, BAT COUNT, is due out in spring of 2017, and a funny thing happened on the way to publication…

After the publisher bought it, they sent me an author questionnaire. It included a question asking for ideas about the book’s design. My first thought had to do with space — I really wanted there to be space on the pages: the story involves bats, and is set at dusk, and so space and sky felt important.

My second thought was: is there any reason that the characters have to be white?

Posing that question felt both obvious and a little uncomfortable, but it also felt worth asking. Really: just because I — like the majority of the kid lit world — am white, does that mean the characters have to be too? What I wrote, exactly, was:

Also: it would be interesting if the characters weren’t necessarily white. Environmental science fields are disproportionately populated by Caucasians, and it could be a good thing for kids of color to see kids who look like them getting involved in scientific inquiry.

The book is “ficinformational”: it is a reassuring bedtime story and also introduces kids to bats, White Nose Syndrome, and the practice of citizen science. What I wrote in my notes was what I believed, though looking back at those words now, I’m struck by their hesitation. “Interesting”, “weren’t necessarily” and “could be” – there’s serious discomfort there, right? And “Caucasian”?! How about “white”!

There was some white guilt at play, for sure. And some newbie anxiety: are authors allowed to offer this sort of input? And, too, the uncomfortable business of raising questions about race to publishers who I have never met and ultimately know very little about.

Fast forward to this April: I received the first sketches. When I opened the pdf my stomach did a huge flip-flop – not only from the thrill of seeing the story made visual, or because illustrator Susan Detwiler — also a white woman — had done SUCH beautiful drawings, but also because the publisher and she had run with that cautious suggestion: the book’s characters were black.

I panicked. Then I hit the phones and queried all my friends who think a lot about race and social justice – black, white and other – to share my doubts. Was the suggestion patronizing in the first place? Is it not my place to try to right the ship in this one small way?

Everyone was reassuring — but they all also know me. And they’re my friends.

The book goes to the printer in a month. Questions linger though, and new ones crop up. Does it make it more ok that I’m white since the book doesn’t address race or any culturally specific themes? Or: did I just slot black characters into a white world, in some sort of contorted version of black-face?

BAT COUNT, when it is out, will speak for itself in some measure. By some assessments it will seem like a good thing that the book features black characters. By others, it won’t. And still others won’t give it second thought. When I start spinning again on these issues — like I did this morning after reading that post — I sometimes find myself wishing I was in that latter camp and could feel less angst. But hard as these questions are, they are so important. And it’s great that so many people in the kid lit world are jumping in to embrace them.

22 comments

  1. Anna, I commend you for speaking up and think it is completely appropriate and necessary! I have often wondered – when authors often don’t have a say in the art – how much of the diverse books issue could be addressed through the PB art department. I think sometimes people assume a “diverse book” needs to directly be about race. I’m sure you’ve seen the “We need more books like Snowy Day” post? It is SUPER important that children of color see themselves in all sorts of narratives – not just ones that deal specifically with race. And equally important that white kids see black characters in books that aren’t only about civil rights or the struggles of race. Great job and congratulations on your book!!!!

    1. Thanks Emily! I did see that post and found it heartening. I did work trying to stock a small library diversely — and specifically with better African American representation — at an organization I am involved with and was blown away by how limited the range was thematically, as well as how stereotyped (especially in terms of what it means to be black, culturally) so many of the books were…

  2. Dear Anna I hope you are well. I just wanted to let you know that I submitted commentary on this lovely post. However, word press was giving me some trouble and I’m not sure if it went through. Please let me know when you have a chance. Hope to see you soon, And best of luck with the bats.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful post following from Dana’s thoughtful post. So many struggle and second-guess on issues of race, it’s hard to know what to do. Your book sounds important, for the bats as well as the children who read it. Thanks for writing it.

  4. Just last week I was at the pediatrician office with my 10 yr old girl and there was a picture book about going to the dr, and the Dr was black. I felt the need to point out that picture books that I read as a kid were all white. She rolled her eyes and said, ” mama you don’t always have to point these things out ..” Sigh. Yes, we do- well done Anna!

  5. Next time, you can cut out the hesitation in your request and tell them you want people of color populating the pages of your book. Like, crowding those pages. Not just one brown kid second from the left as in so many of the picture books I’ve shared with my kids and library visitors over the years. Trust your gut on this, you gutsy woman.

  6. I loved depicting the family in your story as African American, Anna! For one thing, all humans have beauty of one kind or another, and it was a pleasure to draw and paint these people, brought to life in my head by your words.

    1. Susan – I’m sorry to be seeing this comment so belatedly. Sometime, too, we have to talk about THAT DOG! S/he so totally belongs in the book, with Jojo and with her family. I had such an “of course!” moment when I saw the first sketches…

  7. So excited about your book, Anna…and I really appreciated hearing the back story of the interaction between you and your editor. That is great that they wanted your input…and super fabulous that the book turned out the way it did…yes, we totally need more diversity in children’s literature…and books like Bat Count are going to make a difference in the lives of young children. 😉

  8. I think we need to include kids from a diversity of backgrounds. We live in a rich society with children from many different cultural heritages, in all shapes and sizes, and with a variety of needs e.g. wheelchairs, glasses, cochlear implants . . . Good on you for making the suggestion, and for having it acted upon. Won’t it be wonderful when the suggestion no longer needs to be made.

  9. It’s one thing to wring our hands about a problem and another to be part of the change. Your book will be counted as part of the change. Thank you on behalf of writers who want books to help all children see themselves in this big wonderful world. P.S. I’m an Arbordale author, too 🙂

  10. I am glad that your book didn’t address any race or cultural themes. It’s really annoying that people try to minimize our lives to our race or culture. We live regular lives. We go swimming, dancing, read books, live our daily lives and have daily adventures or struggles which have none at all to do with our race or cultural theme but more with who we are as a person and the kind of life we are living.
    I know a lot of colored kids who are interested in science and love to read about it but never see themselves depicted in such books. So, kudos do to you for making it happen. We want to see ourselves in regular, normal situations.

    1. Priya: thanks. I hear you.
      There is one story to be told from looking at the raw numbers: there just isn’t enough diversity of ANY sort in kids books.
      And then there are all these other really crazy things that you discover when you start to look at the content that IS out there — the stereotyping and the selective representation…
      I know that some of it is the unfortunate result of ‘good intentions’, but the reality is that the cumulative result is not positive.
      I did another, related post a while back: https://annaforrester.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/adventures-in-stocking-a-childrens-library-diversely-part-1/
      In any case, it is pretty exciting to watch the playing field start to shift a little bit…

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