Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Diversity Roll Call #5 continued


When I showcase books with other ethnic groups or no faces, interests is always higher. A quick search through my past In My Mailbox posts will support my observations. Recently I showcased Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice. The novel is about a mother and daughter. They happen to be black but the cover art is a garden so race isn't an immediate marker. Their names might suggest they're black but a reader might not assume the race. Instead of the majority of readers commenting as usual,"I've never heard of that" some readers commented they might check the book out.

And to answer your original question, in Orange Mint and Honey, the main character has an impressive garden so the cover art makes sense. But I think the issue of being pigeon-holed was a factor in not using black models. I'm not certain, but I'm going to ask Carleen.

I don't overlook books based on the race of the characters or author or the cover art. I regularly read about books on blogs that I have never heard of yet I manage to genuienly say more than "I never heard of that" and I do express interest in many of the titles. Every time we have this discussion about race, white readers inevitably say race doesn't matter. If it doesn't matter why aren't they reading books by black writers and I mean more than the icons like Morrison and Angelou? It's like the joke about everybody having the same black friend.

I'm very interested in hearing why we don't see more books with people of color on the cover being showcased on teen blogs. I have had this discussion before with a teen reviewer and she said part of the reason is that most teen reviewers are focused on books they get for review and they have only been reading YA for a short time. I think this only partly explains the absence of color. What explains the lack of expressed interest in these titles when they are exposed to them? While I do focus on realistic fiction, I've also highlighted teen romance and non-fiction; neither generated any any more interest.

Now some will ask what about YA authors like Rita Williams Garcia and Coe Booth? I'd say well these are seasoned writers who've been featured on readergirlz. Ask a teen blogger to name another black author. Then ask if they've actually read the author. There is a difference when we talk about other ethnicities. Asian writers and Asian characters seem to get more attention, and I think this is for two reasons: 1) the genres- fantasy and teen chick lit and 2) Asian characters are perceived as more assimilated with the majority. The more the characters are similar to white characters the more they are embraced.

Do I need to pull out a fire hose at this point? I don't say any of this to be polemic or critical. I am using this exercise as an opportunity to talk about an elephant that sometimes I feel is not just in the room but standing on my chest. I'd like to know what will it take for white teens to read popular fiction with black faces on the cover. I've read books without my face on the cover my entire reading life.

Now if I didn't just completely blacklist myself, can we have a real and extended dialogue here?
I'm going to pass on answering the other questions. To read more contributors' thoughts go here.


Ali said...

I'm fascinated by your answer to #2, the fact that you don't get an indication of Soli's race until it's relevant. I wonder if that's true of The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, too, and led to my confusion about what the characters looked like. It matters to me what they look like because I like to picture the "movie" in my head.

On covers, here's a depressing little side note: My two wonderful kids, who listen to more music by black artists than white, who have a half-black best friend, who think Will Smith is the best actor ever...will more often than not pass up a book with black people on the cover. I have no excuses, no explanations, no theories.

When I asked them about it just now, "Do you think a character on the cover who looks different from you makes you less likely to want to read the book?" they said no. But Evan (8 yr old) says, "No offense, but books about black people seem to be mostly about jazz musicians or slavery, and that's not interesting to me." #1, Where did this misconception come from???(We do have Harlem Summer on the library shelf, it has a boy with a saxophone on it) And #2, What book about slavery have we even read in the last couple of years???

Clearly there's work to be done. Where to start? I'm not sure I know.

susan said...

I've heard other white readers say the same thing: they see a black face on the cover and they have very narrow themes come to mind: jazz, slavery, depressing story with death or poverty and ghettos.

The reality is if readers would actually read the synopsis they'd find the same themes and storylines they find with white characters.

With Soli, it wasn't long before Dole described her appearance but the first reference wasn't a neon sign.She talked about how curvy Soli was. Well, I knew Soli was Cuban so her body type didn't register as black. It wasn't till she sported spiked dreads on the last day of school that I knew she was black.

And let me go back to covers, many black readers are influenced by media images of beauty. In our library, many of the girls who are influenced primarily by covers and not the storyline will pick up books with white girls with long hair on the cover. They will pick up books with black girls, too, but for many of them the girls must be fashionable and the book must suggest the book is cool and current. Historical fiction is never touched and any cover that suggests its dated is like a dead fish in the water.

Summer said...

Very interesting discussion here. See, for me, seeing a black person on the cover is something that will make me pick up a book. But, I'm kind of against book covers with faces on it anyway. I'd rather have something more symbolic. Still that doesn't solve the problem, you shouldn't have to do away with black people on covers to sell books. I guess the main goal would be convincing others that even though the person on the cover looks different from you the book still has something to do with you, especially if you're interested in the story independent of the cover.

tea said...

You have written a powerful essay. I have Toni Morrison's photo on my site. Simply because most people immediately say "what is she saying?" As if she talks in another language. I feel this is a way of ignoring her books without seeming like you just don't want to bother with this Black females books.

You are very observant. I applaud you. You are making us talk about an issue we would like to slide beneath the nearest rug. Thanks.

susan said...

Summer, I hear. I am the same way about multicultural literature in general. Anything that suggests the book introduces me to something different in some way piques my interest.And for me, I assume that on some level, I will relate.

Tea, the cover issue also speaks to how we all are condition by what the media defines beauty, chic, cool and everything else we're suppose to want to be. I have black readers who respond the same way to books with black people on the cover.

Keri said...

"Evan (8 yr old) says, "No offense, but books about black people seem to be mostly about jazz musicians or slavery, and that's not interesting to me." #1, Where did this misconception come from???(We do have Harlem Summer on the library shelf, it has a boy with a saxophone on it) And #2, What book about slavery have we even read in the last couple of years???"

Actually, I don't think it is the kid who has the problem. It's probably the librarians/bookstore buyers that are only buying the critically acclaimed award winning books that typically are about these topics. Great contemporary FUN books about African-American kids and teens do exist (thankfully in ever increasing numbers - though we still need tons more), but the a lot of the gatekeepers don't know about them.

susan said...

Say it again, Keri. Weren't you and I in another discussion where we were discussing the need to get librarians and school teachers to promote other AA authors other than Meyers and Draper? I love Draper; she was writing when I was in school. She's mentored and inspired a whole new generation of writers. Let's promote more writers.

Ali said...

Maybe so. But my kids' "classroom teacher" is me, and my library is generally pretty good about getting books....give me some examples for ages 8-12 and I'll check and see if they're available to us. I have several that look great on my shelf that may be appropriate for my older son but I need to read them first. Hopefully by summer's end.

susan said...

Ali, what is currently on you bookshelf and what have you covered in their lessons? Did you ask your son why he has that impression?

What kind of books does your son read for leisure and what are his hobbies? I firmly believe you have to start with the reader's interest.

Ali said...

12 y.o. is loving realistic, contemporary fiction with male leads. Action or skateboarding preferred, but not required. He's willing to tolerate a love interest but not ready for true romance or sex, or kids who drink or smoke pot, etc. We're not ultra-conservative but there's none of that in his life at this point, so in a book it's "weird" to him. I read a chapter of "White Mexican Boy" with him and we agreed it's too racy ("weird," was his word) for him. More in attitude than behavior, if that makes sense.

Recent favorites of his: "Grind" and "Sketchers" by Eric Walters, Skate by Mark Harmon, the Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series. I thought he might've liked Walter Dean Meyer's "Sunrise Over Fallujah," he started it but didn't finish. He wouldn't try the other W.D. Meyers book I got ("Harlem Summer,") I think because of the setting. Started "The Way a Door Closes" by Anita Hope Smith and lost interest. I can't remember what else.

Younger son (8) is tough to find books for, period, because of his current reading level. He reads well but gets bored with too many words per page. Will tolerate nothing "babyish." He likes graphic novels. Finished "Grind," which is 100 pages of solid text, in 3-4 days but other books he'll read a chapter and lose interest.

Aloud we're in the thick of John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series, we have 2 more books to go before we'll be ready to shift to a different read-aloud mode.

Long answer to a short question!

susan said...

My knowledge of books for boys is really limited but I'm learning. I like Meyers and I like Chris Crutcher. Doret is a good source and so is Andromeda. I love Gaiman but they might find him racey? You introduced me to Rich and I'm very interested in checking out what he suggests. I like Christopher Paul Curtis but he is more historical but his work isn't dry. I did come across a site for teen boys. Let me look for it. There might be graphic novels that are suitable and interest your son. Don't know if they'll present diverse characters but we can hope.