Friday, January 1, 2010

Mama Lockdown: Recognition for Black Literature Beyond Historical

Minutes ago, yes, minutes. The outcome of the Cybils 2009 shortlist distressed me enough to write about it now. Here's the good news:

From our database: * Total eligible books across all categories: 939 * Books read by at least 1 panelist: 931 which is 99.1% of the books * Books read by at least 2 panelists: 894 which is 95.2% of the books * Unread books: 8 which is 0.9% of the books Eight books. That's it. We only failed to read eight books--less than one percent of the nominated titles. One word: Wow.

Mama Lockdown is my fantasy character I created goofing around but today I'm posting her in protest. This is the kind of character I want to see more of, promoted and read by readers. I want black characters that today's black child can relate to.

I'm starting off the new year with a rant about an issue you're probably sick of hearing by now. Well, I'm sick of making it so somebody tell me why this continues to happen: 931 books read and of all the finalists by or about African Americans, the finalists are about slaves or civil rights.

What the frack! Is it any wonder why my nephews and countless other children of all colors are less than enthused about getting books with black characters because those books almost always are books about us blacks being hung, sprayed or chased by dogs? Come on. I don't want to speculate why black children's literature is routinely recognized only in historical narratives. At the moment I don't want to speculate if it's because publishers refuse to publish anything else by us or it's because non-poc readers only seem to accept us in limited roles. I know this much: we, black people for damn sure are sick of being pigeon-holed.

I spent hours over several days nominating quality books by people of color in all categories and predictably the end result is I read a final list with a white author recognized for writing about a slave girl and another that feels like the compulsory children's book token nod, a picture book about civil rights.

Look, I appreciate historical titles and I'm a civil rights baby so don't think these kinds of books don't matter to me. What has my panties in a bunch is that I want black kids reading about kids who look like them and the characters aren't oppressed or part of narratives that suggest we have no life or interests beyond civil rights. I'm an adult and I feel like these books are being rammed down their throats and mine. Why don't books like Troy Cle's The Marvelous Effect or Michelle Thomson's Keena Ford make these lists? Black authors have a really hard time even getting published and once they do they need to make lists like Cybils because mainstream readers follow these lists. We need allies. We need readers to see our full range of experiences and interests. We need more than black folks reading books by black folks or we won't get more publishing deals.

I am very impressed and do respect the hard work all the panelists did for Cybils. I get this is a labor of love so know that my outcry isn't a criticism of the individuals involved but a frustrated outcry about how black writers and readers are perceived.

What is keeping black authors from gaining recognition outside of the historical category? Tell me. Tell us. Tell us what it's going to take for the majority to stop insisting that we are weighted down by oppression even in our roles in literature.

Helen, I've been on the battlefield so long my head feels a little scrambled at times. Here are a few links related to why I am a literacy and diversity advocate:

Doret writes:
I am working on my coming soon post. I am into August and plan on stopping there but I've only found about 10 debut books by authors of color. That includes picture book.

Notice I said debut authors of color not debut Black authors

And I have been searching hard. I am like a Bloodhound when it comes to finding novels with people of color or by authors of color

That low number proves that there is something wrong with the publishing industry.

Where's Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty at Publisher's Weekly

And Stay Out of Trouble:Narratives for Black Urban Children by Lelac Almagor at Horn Books. This raised more than a few arm hairs. I had quite a bit to say in this discussion. Almagor is a classic example of why I feel compelled to speak up.

A response from Sharon G. Flake to Almagor

A great series to follow is Writers Against Racism at Amy Bowllan's blog at School Library Journal.


Leslie @ This is the Refrain said...

I wish I had a good answer to your question, Susan. All I can do is read and promote, read and promote. Thank you for the two suggestions in this post, I'll be checking them out.

Eva said...

I'm posting next week about my experiences reading 50% POC fiction, and I plan to address this very issue. How there isn't much mainstream attention paid to non-historical poc characters. And how I don't think that a white author writing about a poc character 'counts'. And how my reading is SO much richer since I've gotten to know more POC authors, and how you were my inspiration.

I know that this isn't directly related to the post topic (except for that I'm a white girl reading black authors), but I want to just remind you that YOU made the difference in my life, so you are making positive change. Even if it's baby steps.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Here are some theories: because books about blacks being hung, sprayed or chased by dogs include whites and/or tap into sympathy/guilt? Because otherwise, whites aren't interested in reading books featuring only blacks? Because black people couldn't possibly have the same concerns as whites?

But I think bloggers are working to change those perceptions. Just to name a few: Look at you, always bringing new books about people of color to everyone's attention. Look at Ari, reading and blogging up a storm, and so enthusiastic you can't read one of her reviews without wanting to read the book. Look at all the enthusiastically embraced challenges that challenge non-people of color to pick up books involving people of other colors and cultures.

I'm just guessing that with the continued growing influence of bloggers, next year is going to be different and better!

susan said...


You know you all rock, right? :-)

Eva, I think you are amazing and you inspire me. I swear I know no one who reads like you and you manage to still be as social and connected as you are. Glad we connected.

Jill, I want gush about you because I'll get an email and then I'll get mushy and well, I'm doing the Mama Lockdown thing at the moment.

Lu, know I appreciate all you do.

Helen's Book Blog said...

I have been thinking the same thing, but my thinking about youth lit is why do the books about black characters have them doing drugs, getting beat up, or hanging out in jail? When I shop for books with poc for my school's library I have a REALLY tough time finding books that are just "normal" stories. Does that make sense?

Obviously, I don't have the answer to your question, but know that a bunch of out there are thinking the same things you are. Not sure if that helps or not.

MotherReader said...

I can tell you one person's perspective from the Cybils panels - but I want to make it clear that these are my thoughts, not any "official" Cybils word on the subject.

For Fiction Picture Book, we had twelve books with African or African-American characters. Six of those focused on civil rights, slavery, refugees, or historical overview. Six did not. So right there you've got a 50/50 chance.

As it turned out, the publishers sent titles of the five of the first six. Publishers sent three of the next six. (Some publishers choose not to send copies to panelists.) So while we tried to find as many books as possible at the libraries, already this group of titles were at a disadvantage.

Looking myself at the six non-issue books, I thought four were fine, but not good enough in terms of story, illustrations, and/or kid appeal to make the top of the list. One I pushed for, but it wasn't liked by all the panelists. Another I thought might have had a chance, but it was one that few panelist had received or seen, and it was too hard a sell against one that everyone had liked for the story and illustrations.

There are a couple of things that I observed in the difference between the two groups of books. The Black History books tended to have bigger name illustrators and authors. They also tended to feature more "standard" illustrations, while the other group was a mix of styles which wouldn't have as much easy, universal appeal. (Not a judgment call on the quality - just saying that a Jerry Pinkney inspires near consent, while some people won't like Sean Qualls' art style.)

Of all of the books, I'd say only one could have been a white character without changing a thing about the book. There's where I see the biggest problem. Because by the same token, many of those other great books we saw could have just as easily had a child of color. So then the question becomes - in picture books at least - why can't more good stories be illustrated using African American characters?

(Sorry this went on so long. I should have just posted about it.)

Michelle (su[shu]) said...

I'm only just discovering POC authors, so I can't really offer anything except say that it could be because some prejudices still remain, and maybe because the literary/publishing/reading world is just dominated with white authors.

But I'm definitely going to try read more in support of POC authors.

Color Online said...

Pam, you've just supported my points. Why aren't more books with our range of experiences published? Why did all the big names send books by established AA writers and the perspective was historical? The larger issue isn't about what panelists chose but what they were offered in the first place. Though, I'd be lying if I said I don't question if the pigeon-holing has affected somes expectations. How would a panelist view a non-historical book by an AA author?

Helen, we've had that debate at School Library Journal. at Roger's. I'll look for the link if you're interested.

Michelle, I and others have issues with the publishing industry. I need Zetta and Doret to come in with the stats. Let me say that when only 3% of published books for children are published by POC authors we have a problem.

Color Online said...


There are some but not enough books with black characters that are not centered on drugs, violence or jail. I invite you to check out our lists of books at Color Online and you have to follow Ari's blog, a href="">.

Helen's Book Blog said...

I'd love to see the stuff from School Library Journal if you can find it, thanks!

Helen's Book Blog said...

I do follow Reading in Color and really enjoy it, thanks!

MissA said...

So my perspective is a little different on this because I really like historical fiction. It's one of my favorite genres, my problem with it is that I want to see differrent periods of history of poc explored. I want to see YA books about the Harlem Renaissance, WWII, policy kings, the migrant workers movement and other periods of history that I've never heard of that have to do with poc. But I am tired of books about slavery and the same old civil rights movement. At least some books are about the Black Panthers now which is different.
However, I am disappointed at the lack of books about poc in the Cybils final list. It's very frustrating and I ask the same question you do susan, what can we do? The only answer I can think of is continue doing what we're doing, read, review, blog about the issues and not give up. At least the MG had 2 books (All the Broken Pieces and Chains) about poc on the list, YA had none except for (well I suppose North of Beautiful counts for general fiction) Tiger Moon in the Scifi category.
I have to go,but I'll be back :)
Thank you everyone who follows and likes Reading in Color, I appreciate your kind words :)

Color Online said...

I think we are more alike that you're reading here. It's not a matter of what I personally like, and I, too, enjoy historical fiction. It's a matter of diversity and breadth of what's being published by African Americans. Notice in this particular post I talk specifically about African Americans and not POC. There are notable POC books recognized by Cybils. These books are not limited in the same way as AA literature is.

As Pam pointed out, their choices were limited. We can do all you say and we need to make a concerted effort to communicate to publishing houses and mainstream, professional review sites to cover a broader range of books by black writers.

Zetta said...

Esther Armah's radio show, Off the Page, just did a repeat today of an earlier episode on race and the Children's Book Council...Carleen Brice gives links to Publisher's Weekly articles on race and publishing at White Readers Meet Black Authors...we discuss this all the time, it seems, but the reality is that the children's publishing industry is 99% white--those are the people who decide which books to publish, so they are responsible for what you see on the shelves and on "best of" lists. The industry is racist. Period. White editors clearly believe readers only want to see blacks as victims--not as healthy, "normal" human beings. NYU is planning a conference in October on black children's literature and these issues will be at the forefront...

susan said...

Thanks Zetta,

And now is a good time to also thank you and Edi for helping a group of us get our proposal accepted for the National Divesity in Libraries Conference to be held this summer at Princeton.

I'm honored and humbled. And I'm going to need help preparing my selection.

MissA said...

I think what it is going to take to get more books about African Americans published in any genre for children is more pressure on the publishing houses. To do that I think we need to have more publicity on the issue. As Justine Larbalestier said in one of her posts (I'm paraphrasing here) what is Internet famous may not be world famous. To me that means, when it comes to this issue we can't just assume that the publishing houses/editors are hearing us. And if they are, they may very well be ignoring us. I think if we can get mainstream magazines (like Ebony, Essence, Newsweek, etc.) and newspapers to pick up this issue and start investigating it, it would force the publishing companies to act a little better.
I know that most editors say they aren't getting books by black authors. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but if it is than we need to implement more writing programs and such in schools to help create a more diverse group of writers.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

We need to move on all these fronts--initiating writing programs in schools, pressuring publishers, encouraging book buyers to buy poc titles (including those published by small presses), and making sure these get fair consideration for awards. The effect is cumulative: Success in any one of these leads to success in other areas.

But I think Ari's perspective--"more writing programs and such in schools to help create a more diverse group of writers"--is essential because that's where it starts, and the pressure will ultimately come from the ground up.

Susan T. said...

Dear Mama Lockdown,

One of the Middle Grade/YA Nonfiction finalists is The Frog Scientist, about an African American scientist. Part of Houghton MIfflin's Scientists in the Field series.

I hear you, though.

susan said...

Susan T,
I'm glad to hear about the exception and I'm glad you hear me. Thanks for weighing in.

Lynn, glad you contributed to the conversation.

Zetta said...

I want us to be careful about buying into the publishing industry's *claim* that they don't receive quality submissions from people of color...right now, TODAY, there is a large pool of quality writers that those editors have made NO effort to access. Agents often don't take on POC writers, and that further limits our access to editors. On another note, I have twenty picture book manuscripts on all kinds of topics, but when a "major player" editor looked at my long list of titles, she only asked for those dealing with incarceration, gang violence, and poverty. So giving these same people MORE is not necessarily the answer...

Jessie Carty said...

i'm so glad i found your blog to find out more about the variety of books that are out there!!

i find myself ranting just as much about the way girls are portrayed in books - too many YA books with female narrators are all about finding the right boyfriend *gag*

keep up the good fight!

susan said...

I read mostly YA, I focus on girls and you won't find a single book title here where a girl is pining after some boy. Ain't gonna happen.

When you have the time, I have the book. Just say when or keep showing up like you do.

I have to do better to give boys a nod. I highly recommend Ari or Colleen at Guys Lit Wire. For great literary and multicultural lit for adults, check out Eva at A Striped Armchair and Jill at rhapsodyinbooks. I could list others but it's just as easy to check my blog roll.

susan said...


Say it again. It is time to dismantle excuses that make some folks comfortable. The books are being written. They are NOT being published.

Tarie Sabido said...

I completely agree that we need to move on all fronts (newspapers, magazines, schools, bookstores, and much much more). There won't be a big enough change if we only move on one or two fronts.

Right now I feel pretty helpless and frustrated about this important issue. But for 2010 one of my resolutions is to read more books by black authors and illustrators and more books featuring black characters.

Doret said...

I wish I could bring good news but I can't. This year is not looking any better.

I am working on my coming soon post. I am into August and plan on stopping there but I've only found about 10 debut books by authors of color. That includes picture book.

Notice I said debut authors of color not debut Black authors

And I have been searching hard. I am like a Bloodhound when it comes to finding novels with people of color or by authors of color

That low number proves that there is something wrong with the publishing industry.

There are probably ten White debuts authors in Jan. alone (not including picture books)

In the bookstore I work at MG and YA lit or two of the few areas that are growing. Because the books are selling.

The only non historical fiction debut by a Black author is 8th grade Superzero by Rhuday- Perkovich

When contemparary novels featuring characters of color do come out - You already here anything about them

Parents and teachers can't buy what they haven't heard of.

I am so tired of beating this drum. My hands freakin hurt and I am losing my voice.

I want a new song.

Charlotte said...

Hi Susan, thanks for the thoughtful post. I took your comment above about "what the panelists were offered" and ran with it. Here's a breakdown of kids of color in the middle grade science fiction and fantasy long list.

Tarie Sabido said...

I just read your post, Charlotte. (Thank you for showing us the numbers!) Alas and alack. Slim pickings indeed. :o(

Wendy said...

Okay, Doret, you've spoken to me. I'm going to try hard to read and review the debut authors you find (possibly excluding picture books, which I don't "do" often). This year I'm going to resolve, instead of making an effort to read the most buzzed-about books, to put my special effort toward reading the books of authors who are POC.

Liz B said...

GN shortlist; Secret Science Alliance. The main girl is African American; her father is a professor, or head of univesity museum. Maybe both.

Ana S. said...

There are some great thoughts in your post and in the comments, so trivial though it might sound, thank you all for making me pause and think about this.

Like Lu, I can't think of an answer, and I don't want to sound like I'm lessening the role racism and stereotypical perceptions of people of colour play in all this. But something that crossed my mind, and which might be another side of this issue, is the prevalent idea that books (especially books for younger readers) that deal with Issues are somehow more worthy than books about everyday life. And in this case, books about Historical Issues would be valued above books where poc characters deal with things that people of all colours deal with all over the world. I don't want to sound like I'm accusing the panellists - who did a great job - of being particularly biased, since this is an attitude that I find pretty much everywhere, and of which I've been guilty myself. It's easy not to realise how limiting and damaging this is, though, which is why it's so important to stop and think.

Thanks again for all you do, and thank you for introducing me to fantastic authors like Angela Johnson and Jacqueline Woodson.

Anonymous said...

I just checked my stats. Hard to believe I've been blogging for 3.5 years, trying to put the titles out out there that so many say they can't find. For a long time, I just put information out there and eventually grew into a real network. The trick with networks though, it to realize when they've become too much of a comfort zone. My network welcomes all to the table who want to expand their world. The sad/funny tragic thing is those who need to join our circle will not. I'm talking bloggers, but this is happening with publishers, name it! I can blame them, I can point fingers at them, they're going to do what they're going to do.

I'm growing my blog a little more, reaching out into uncharted territories. It boggles the mind when you do this, the things you find. Imagine someone who says something like 'I tried multicultural lit once. I read that one author, didn't like that one book, and I'm done with it'. WTF??? Isn't reading meant to expand our world?? Now, my reaction is typically to walk away from idiots. Instead, I'm going to continue on the path I've chosen, participate so fully and so colorfully in these new challenges, on these new blogs that some color will have to rub off somewhere.

Strategize ladies: whatcha gonna do?

Anonymous said...

1. I have similar sentiments as Ari regarding historical fiction, I love it. I've found only one book on the Harlem Renaissance for young folks by a black author-Walter Dean Myers Harlem Summer. This makes no sense to me. So, I agree that the overkill comes more from the focus on, maybe, two periods in Black history(the periods where Blacks were "suffering") as opposed to our history in general.

2. I'm a mom, a homeschooling mom, and have a hard time finding POC children's books. I just discovered an older series-the Julian books- last year and my son's almost 7. There's not enough promotion and for as much research as I do creating curriculum, POC children's titles should not be so hard to find.

3. That leads to me agreeing with Zetta. The books are being written and the publishers think that non-POC readers don't want to read about regular POC. Since they believe the market is driven by non-POC readers, this thinking is acceptable. When one of our books manages to get published, there's very little promotion. So, the root of the problem is in publishing. I'm sure if the front was more united and on purpose, like this discussion, some change may occur. We can start a campaign where we use these public platforms-our blogs-to make a loud noise.

Liz B said...

Eleanora Tate's "Celeste's Harlem Renaissance" is set during the Harlem Renaissance.

susan said...

You are an allie. When we launched Color Me Brown, you didn't get defensive or express guilt. You did what's needed: you read and reviewed POC titles.

I appreciate what you do. Now tell me, why the titles and no commentary? I'm used to you saying what you think.

susan said...

I'm glad you're expanding your circle because you have a lot of knowledge to share. You're needed.


Thank you for introducing me to fairy tales, graphic novels and more. Because of you, I have more books to share with others.

Colleen said...

I think it is great that both Susan and Liz have mentioned a couple of books with POC in the final lists but I also have to shake my head a bit. We are celebrating the fact that out of a few dozen books there are, what, less than ten with non-Caucasian protagonists?

(I don't have time to run the numbers on this right now as I'm off to the library to get the YA NF finalists as I'm a judge there but it would be great to get all the numbers down across the board.)

This is NOT a criticism of the Cybils but a reflection of publishing at large. Pam makes an excellent point in the comments about the picture books category that should annoy everyone.

I get the same catalogs Doret does and I have been shaking my head for a month. And Zetta is correct - the books are being written they just are not getting published. What's really absurd about that is the fact that Sherman Alexi and Gene Yang were both award winners in the past few years with non-Caucasian protagonists. And their books sold like crazy. So it's not that white kids won't read books about brown or black kids. (And further that only what white kids read matters.) It's the notion that they won't - and it is a notion that transcends to adult publishing as well.

The internet was made for this moment - it is perfect for issues like this.

This is the part of the world that we can change and there is no excuse not to do whatever we can to make that change happen.

Anonymous said...

"Regarding Black children, the most striking feature of St. Nicholas [a prominent children's magazine] is the veil of invisibility it confers on them and their lives. No pictures of "normal" Black children appear in any of the issues for that year except for one Black child who appears in a decoration representing children of various ethnicities or nationalities at the top of a puzzle page in the January 1919 issue."

from: Free within ourselves: the development of African American Children's Literature

I wasn't looking for this, just happened to have read it a few minutes ago and had to share.

susan said...

To all participants do note:
"This is NOT a criticism of the Cybils but a reflection of publishing at large. Pam makes an excellent point in the comments about the picture books category that should annoy everyone."

Liz B said...

Susan, mainly quietish from a combo of things: limited online as well as mulling what can be a constructive addition to convo? Is it cybils and what is or isn't nominated? If it's publishing, it's also about what people believe children will or won't read? And that is more layers than a comment. More questions than answers. So mulling mostly.

susan said...

Are but the questions matter. Thanks for letting me know.

MissA said...

Everyone is making fantastic points. It really is all about the publicity and attnetion. Petitions, stories, etc. I would like to see more editors getting involved in these discussions, they don't even try to defend themselves. I think we need to keep blogging and try to expand our readership as much as possible to be a foce to be reckoned with.
Perhaps email your local newspaper talking abut your blog. Personally, when I see blogs mentioned in the newspaper I usually look them up.
My strategy: read, review, comment! And perhaps work in the publishing biz whne I get older ;)

Mrs. Pilkington said...

I have definitely come across that notion that White children will not be interested in books featuring PoC, and the notion that books featuring PoC are somehow 'niche' books that don't include universal themes & values, that the characters themselves are somehow alien and unrelatable simply because of race, ethnic or cultural identity. Ari's suggestions to read, review, comment and work in the biz are right on the money. We should challenge ourselves to read widely and critically at every age. We need to hold publishers accountable and show in tangible ways that the status quo is unacceptable. We must continue to write the books -- because we sure *are* writing them, to get ourselves involved in the decision-making process, and become decision makers and power players ourselves -- pooling resources to start houses, send each other to conferences, workshops, and all of the 'in-crowd' events, mentor each other, etc.. Thank you for this post, and for the resources you've mentioned. You and everyone who's commented are vital voices for change.

Unknown said...

I've been thinking the same thing about movies. Stories about those already famous, or stories where black people need to be saved. Or stories feeding into other stereotypes. It's frustrating and tiring.

So I have no solutions either, honestly.


Neesha Meminger said...

I agree with Zetta: the books are being written; they are not being published. I know many published authors of colour writing books that are non-issue, non-historical, sometimes romance, sometimes comedy, and sometimes just plain old fluffy-feel-good novels that are not being published. My own romantic comedy was sent back with a note that said, "too predictable." Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble shelves are continually lined with predictable romantic comedies written by white authors. In every single Sarah Dessen novel I've ever read, I knew exactly who the main character was going to end up with (and how), and she always did. But that didn't make the novels any less appealing. And, clearly, overwhelming numbers of teen girls agree with me.

Edi, it's true that the people who most need to read these posts and comments often do not. But their colleagues and friends (and other people whose opinions they value) sometimes do. And we can hope that some of these discussion topics come up in social and work settings. Awareness is raised slowly, in increments. I wasn't born an anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ feminist--I became one through listening and paying attention, and drawing upon my own experiences.

Keep doing what you're doing. It takes small ripples to become waves. If you get tired, stop. But if something fires you up, you bang on that drum. Colleen's right, the internet has given us a unique opportunity to find other like-minded folks, and to have our voices heard. Let's keep making good use of it.

Heather Zundel said...

Hopefully this is a small ray of hope. A new independent publisher just opened that is specializing in multicultural YA sci-fi and fantasy, called Tu Publishing. While they are looking for characters of ethnicity (including black), what they want most is the story. So hopefully your kids and all those young readers will have something to look up to other than civil rights and slaves, as you say very soon. :)

Carol H Rasco said...

Thank you, Susan, for this posting. I have nothing new to add to the conversation except that I will continue to read and post about books read which have clear POC as main/secondary characters or authors/illustrators; and when talking with publishers with whom RIF deals I will discuss and discuss some more this issue which I have been doing. It all reminds me of my efforts in the disability field; I desperately wanted my son to see and hear about children with disabilities when he was growing up - the numbers of books were's not a lot better now as my son turns 36, but I have certainly seen some significant movement. We must all continue to push and push on all buttons that might have a chance of bringing some progress, small or large.

Maw Books said...

I served on the panel with Mother Reader and appreciate her break down regarding the picture book panel. I did want to note that ALL THE WORLD, one of the finalists, the main family in the story features a black father, white mother and multiracial children. The book is a beautiful rendition about families.

Devas T. said...

Thanks, Susan, for raising awareness and keeping conversations like this going.

Many good responses here. I can't offer any answers, too complex. I will say that I am one who believes in addressing problems by beginning in my own backyard.

Do you know how many times family members have asked me, "Where can I find your books?"

Um, at the bookstore. You know, that place that sells books.

I begin by addressing the problem at home, by keeping my son's in-home library stocked with books featuring POC (in addition to others), and by chatting up books at The Brown Bookshelf. I encourage other POC to do the same. Money talks.

Don Devas T.

yuan said...

First off, AWESOME character. Mama Lockdown looks very kickass. =D

*coughs* Right, anyhow... I love your article. You're very right about how black children's lit is almost always a Historical Slave and/or Civil War narrative, the pigeon-holing, etc. In fact, reading this reminds me of this post I was linked to from Womanist Musings called Black students told to act like slaves (..... Ugh. Even after all this time of having come across this article, it still infuriates and disgusts me.) I get this general impression that the reason why we don't get more diversity in the portrayal of black people in children's lit has something to do with how the publishing industry (which, to my understanding, is predominantly white) looks for fiction that conforms with their impressions of people and the types of stories of "other" people should concur with their vision of how they view them. So if, say, the publishing industry goes around looking for a black narrative, they head straight for those street lit/beaten down slave, etc etc type stories because they're buying into that ugly racial stereotype. (Erm, this is all guess work. I could be deadly wrong... All I hope is that I didn't say something stupid as I try voicing out these cluttered thoughts in order to sort through it all in my head.)

Ali said...

Thanks for posting this, Mama Lockdown. I know you're tired of banging the same drum, as Doret said, and I wish it wasn't necessary but raising awareness is a huge part of the fight and you do it well. I, for one, will redouble my efforts this year on the reading-and-reviewing front. It's a drop in the bucket, I know.

susan said...

I know Stacy and am thrilled she started Tu Publishing. Will be featuring her (as soon as we can get it done).

Thank you all for the responses. Someone said last week in a post here about not speaking up for fear of sounding stupid. I know the fear. I speak up because I can't be quite. Some things have to be said.

It's clear I'm pretty opinionated and I do speak up, but know that waging a campaign for literacy and diversity is hard because I feel someone's going to question my credibility or my qaulifications. I'm not an educator, writer or academic. I'm not the professional or any of my friends and roles models I look up to are. I'm a woman with a passion. Thank you all for believing in it, too.

Tarie Sabido said...

Miss Attitude (Ari), I would love to see you in the publishing biz in the future!

Olugbemisola (Mrs. Pilkington), right on! We need to start publishing houses; attend conferences, workshops, and other events; and mentor each other.

Gwenda said...

These discussions are so important, and thank you for kicking off this one. I can tell you that we definitely talked about the lack of POC--and diversity in general--in many of the YA SFF titles. It's very frustrating and something has got to give.

Doret said...

One of the great things about blogs is they allow people to give attention to books that may not get it else where.

When I started blogging I made concious decision not to give too much space to White Bestselling authors they don't need it.

I've only had my blog for 2yrs so I am still new. People have been reviewing, discussing children's and YA lit online for a while now

Many bloggers have contributed to this awful cycle by ignoring color.

If more bloggers dedicated space to children's books with poc from the very beginning, I think there would be more books be published with characters of color.

Doret said...

One last point- I am not surprised many teen bloggers or older bloggers who think they're still teens don't review books with poc.

I don't like it but reading can be cliquish and teen bloggers want to read and talk about the next hot title.

What I am surprised about and don't understand - why are there so many teachers, libranians and booksellers who seem to ignore books with poc

MissA said...

I suppose in a way we teen bloggers are cliquish. We definitely all read the same books. If I saw a book continuously getting raved over, then I'm going to read it eventually (like the Hunger Games). However, it would be nice if they made a more conscious effort to review the books that aren't getting so much attention, like books about poc.

@Tarie-Thanks! It's not something I ever considered doing until I got this blog. Get paid for finding/promoting books, yes! (of course it's harder and probably not as much fun as all that)

I'm very excited to see Tu Publishing. and I'm so glad so many people are participating in this vital conversation. We can change the publishing industry if we raise all our voices together :D

Liz Jones said...

As a Cybils organizer myself, gotta say-- I can think of three books with a black character that came to the graphic novels committee. None of these characters fit the stereotypes, which was a nice change of pace, and one book was a finalist-- Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook.

Though we did have a biracial character as the protagonist in Rod Espinoza's "The Courageous Princess" a couple years ago, not one of the three from this year's stories was the main character. I too feel frustrated by the lack of stories about people of color that are available to readers.

As far as trying to get stories into print that aren't about slavery or civil rights... well...I have a friend whose novel was rejected by at least one publisher *explicitly* because it didn't fit the urban ghetto stereotypes that this particular editor believed readers would respond to.
It was about a normal (black) burb kid.Go figure.
More work certainly needs to be done on this one...

Meanwhile--you find em, you like em, send them along to the Cybils.

Color Online said...

Hi Liz,
We're looking and writing. You can believe to so more participation and more nominations. I am committed as many others are to get publishers to join us in the 21st century, a world full of brown people with stories that should be read by all.

Unknown said...

Whoops, joining the party late, here. So, a quick perusal of the lists of Cybils winners since 2006 (not including books about eggs, frogs, talking elephants or neurotic squirrels) that have a PoC author or protag:

American Born Chinese
by Gene Yang

The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County
by Janice N. Harrington

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood
by Ibtisam Barakat

Emiko Superstar
by Mariko Tamaki

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Well, you know, once you rule out the talking animals, the list does get a lot shorter. Even so, I see your point. Slim pickings.

I know there are more PoC offerings among the finalists, such as Sherman Alexie's YA book from 2007, but never mind. You get the idea.

Then again, last year I looked at the finalists and noted a severe lack of testosterone. This year, we recruited more Y-chromosomes onto our panelists and I still got chewed out by an angry (male) emailer who stopped just short of calling me sexist. Comes with the territory, I suppose.

Truth is, we have the discussion about diversity every single year at Cybils. And every year we resolve to do better ... but in no way, shape or form will I issue a directive that the finalists must include a certain number of PoC authors. Won't happen. I won't have any author of color suspecting he or she got on a short list as a token.

What will happen is what I decided to do with the guys. I'm going to recruit your lovely, opinionated self to join us as a judge next year. Mark mid-August on your calendar, when the call for judges goes out. I'm keeping a seat warm for you. Better you should yell at us where we can hear you.

I've already gone on too long, but I can't resist this final note: you probably feel about Civil Rights books as I do about Holocaust books. Trust me, I empathize on this one.

Anne Levy
Cybils Administrator

Carol H Rasco said...

This continues to be such an educational and helpful discussion, thank you to all! To Anne and to Susan: do keep in mind there are people like me who grew up 75+ miles from a Jewish community of any size over zero persons in a state where there are few Jewish people and therefore, we heard not enough about the Holocaust; and while I grew up in the Deep South there are aspects of slavery and Civil Rights even my very open parents didn't have time to present to it is good we have books that are helpful to all of us...some liked by one group, not so well liked by others. Again, thanks to all for this dialogue.

susan said...

Hi Anne,

I hope you would never have a token POC. I want to be clear I said some of the finalist books felt like tokens and that is significantly different. I'm not asking for a handout but opportunity.

In this discussion I focused on African American not POC (the umbrella I normally refer to) for a reason because with us not only are we underrepresented in the publishing industry but when we are, we're more often than not regulated to historical titles that focus on slavery or civil rights.

I am glad to see the exceptions when they get through but I am not content with them. I want inclusion and I'm going to continue to criticize gatekeepers until it change occurs.

Broad discussions about race only goes so far. This was about a particular group and a particular trend.

I think this discussion has been positive and informative for those who don't know. If you're black or another POC writer/reader, this is nothing new. And we are pushing for something new.

Thanks for weighing in.

susan said...


I hear you. I had a co-worker who is 32-years-old tell me that she only learned about the Holocaust roughly three years ago. And in my county/city, we have a very visible and active Jewish community.

We don't want less but more. I want more than the stories most of us know. And don't think I'll be any less strident next month when the usual suspects are are touted for Black History Month. Tacking Barack on the tail end of the list isn't going to get it done either.

Unknown said...

Hey Susan:

Yes, of course you're pushing for something new. But wouldn't you have more effect pushing from within the organization? That's what I'm offering.

As for the books on the list feeling like tokens ... not sure what can be said about that, except that for many people who aren't familiar with the Civil Rights movement (or the Holocaust, for that matter), these issues do feel Larger Than Life.

I don't think the mostly white panelists need to apologize for gravitating to such powerful stories, no matter who's telling them. But there obviously needs to be a greater number of stories about and by African Americans--and on topics of your own choosing. And we at Cybils always need tons of help/opinions/arguments/debate so our definition of "great story" doesn't become static, or (dare I say it) whitewashed. Okay, bad pun, I know.

And, Rasco, ohmigosh, I don't think Susan or I were criticizing the need for Civil Rights or Holocaust books. Please don't mistake me! We're just trying to teach our kids that we're something more than history's victims. Read on! Please!

So, Susan, you're on my list for August, right?


Christine said...

We started Association for Children's Authors and Illustrators of Color (ACAIC) - for reasons like this. It is nearly impossible to get non stereotypical books through the a gauntlet. Published and aspiring authors are all telling remarkably similar stories about their reception in publishing.

The reasons why you see "tokens" is because alternative books and voices can't find a home.

And why is it that when people of color write about their own culture the books are labeled "Black interest" while Hoose (and others) can write about Claudette Colvin (a story well known in the AA community) and it becomes mainstream with a marketing machine behind it?

A number of authors noted that they couldnt get similar subject material about other non-icon's (including Claudette) through the system - which makes the Hoose book from a white author all the more troubling.

It reminds me of the days at a former publisher when manager refused to fast track a Kwanzaa product because he'd never heard of it and mispronounced the word l'chaim for the Jewish line as "la Chame". (I corrected him and he replied "wow , you know a lot of trivia!)

Whole generations of children and their unique (non Blind Side non Precious non mired in race angst) voices are not heard or recognized as valid or "authentic" in literature because the gate keepers have a myopic view of the market potential.

We're all seeing the trend. Unless it's the same civil rights, slavery, poverty ghetto groove, feeding into some pathological need to beat our children over the head with those issues, we can't get a foothold. We will NEVER get a mainstream book where our kids get to be smart and deal with issues unrelated to their race.

I'm really happy that Stacy Whitman is starting Tu Publishing (I contributed) because frankly - I'm fed up with the status quo in publishing and infrastructures that keep validating it. Stacy gets it.

We're going to have to make sure she's successful to make the point.

MotherReader said...

This continues to be an interesting discussion, but I have to take issue with one part.

Doret, I think you give bloggers WAY too much credit for influencing publishing decisions by saying that if we were blogging more about POC in books all along that we'd see more today. I also don't think you're giving us enough credit for writing about POC books, though we may not have sought them out as much as we could.

Oh, and thanks to Natasha for pointing out All the World's mixed race family.

But the other thing I wanted to come back too, was reference in the earlier comment I made about African American characters in picture books. For many of the books I read, it wouldn't have mattered if the boy/girl was white or black. Since many picture books are written and illustrated by different people, who choses the color of the main character? And why do they chose it? (And what can you do about it?)

Colleen said...

I have to say, as a former history teacher, if you know someone who only learned about the Holocaust three years ago then they did not attend school (public or private) in this country and they have purposely avoided pretty much all political discussion in the world for decades. (As in any single discussion on Israel.)

In other words - this is not a person that's going to read any historical fiction anyway.

susan said...


I never expect nor ask for apologies. I agree with you, the issues are than lists and awards.

I don't anyone in this discussion has blamed Cybils for anything nor has anyone said you owe any of us an apology.

You may argue that it was unfair for me to use the outcome of Cybils as a platform for discussing a long-standing issue and that's fine by me.

If you're referring to me, I'm currently planning to attend the National Diversity in Libraries Conference this summer.

Christine said...

A few comments:

1. I can tell you as someone who has logged a bazillion hours of school visits it is NOT common for urban and rural kids to know about the holocaust.

But I also knew Jewish authors who - like AA authors and slavery issues -- are sick of people thinking that the holocaust is the only aspect of their lives.

Lack of exposure is not synonymous with the need to produce more books on the topic.

As a mom - let me tell you my kids are suffering from the misplaced assumption that the world NEEDS more books about victimhood and having no balance or counterweight showing the other aspects of their lives.

Our past doesn't define our future and I'd like to see publishing move forward. Instead, it's stuck in first gear.

The solution will be for us to move our attention to smaller publishers producing the work that is needed, and to start pushing to have more POC as editors and judges so they can train the world to hear a voice, cadence and style that is not Eurocentric masquerading as a POC voice (which is a common complaint by authors trying to get through a revision process).

People gravitate to the familiar and that's not a good thing.

Wendy said...

Christine, I'm intrigued by your comment that

"As a mom - let me tell you my kids are suffering from the misplaced assumption that the world NEEDS more books about victimhood and having no balance or counterweight showing the other aspects of their lives."

because I think that's what a lot of teachers, parents, etc are noting--maybe even the publishers--that there IS high interest in the "overdone" topics we're discussing. While I think I see what you're getting at, a post on this topic might be very helpful and/or interesting--because most of the children's literature world is focused on giving kids what they want, so if you're thinking they need something other than what they want, that's something of a departure.

On another topic, I agree with Pam/Mother Reader that bloggers do perhaps write about books with POC for characters and authors more than it might seem from this discussion. Most bloggers I know are very interested in these questions and in increasing diversity in books.

Melissa said...

I don't have the time right now to read though all the comments (but will come back later), but to address one of your issues. I was on that MG panel, and I have to say that you're right: we sorely lacked books by POC this year. (We did much better last year, I think.) There wasn't much nominated. Period. I'd like to think that of what was nominated, the reason that they didn't make the shortlist was not that those of us on the panel didn't find them good, but that they weren't as stellar as some of the other books we read.

I don't know who's to blame: writers? Publishers? Readers? Who knows. But it is an interesting point you bring up. Thanks.

(And yes, for the record, both of the books on our shortlist that had main characters of color were written by white women.)

Anonymous said...

I am sure this will come across as pretty crazy, but it certainly would not be the first time. So, here it goes. I write YA--urban fantasy/paranormal. I've completed my first novel which is out on submission to agents and is a planned series. I am working on 2 more books, one unrelated to that series and the other, book 2 in that series.

When I started writing, I never thought about the race of the characters in particular. I only knew that like what they said, where they went (direction of the story) and what they did, the characters would tell me who they were. They would define their race/heritage.

As the story took shape, I ended up with an interesting mix (racially) of characters. It was what considered, a nice blend. I am an African American woman, married to a Jewish man with 2 bi-racial children. We both have diversity on both sides of the family and amongst our friends. It is what we are used to--how we grew up.

It is OUR nornal.

When I tried to FORCE different races into the book, it felt just that--forced. The characters rejected it.

I even considered making one of my characters homosexual. It simply seemed forced.

It all came down to authenticity and the true voice of my characters. Readers will identify with that (I think and hope) regardless of color.

That my MC happens to be white is something that felt right to me. It was never something I questioned.

I never tallied how many whites or blacks or bi-racial or differently abled or Asians or what have you appear in the book. I simply know that it seems authentic. Race is not WHO they are. They are not defined by their race. They are defined by their actions, the choices they make and their race happens to be a side note.

What I DO notice on the business side of things, however is that while I may be completely comfortable with such a book--publishing at large may not be.

As for the new work in progress unrelated to this series, I have no idea what race the characters are as of yet. I have not even gotten to that point yet. For me, it is not even an issue. I look forward to the day when it ceases to be one for the rest of the world.

With love-
Georgia McBride

Ellen Hopkins said...

One thing I've found interesting is that many of my readers have written, asking if one or another of my characters was black. Different characters, different books, but in these imaginations, possibly black characters. (Which goes back to the question about why not illustrate characters of color, whether or not they're obviously written that way.)

As a white author, I've been hesitant to write an obviously black character for a number of reasons. However, in the book I've just started, one of the four main characters is black. The book does not have an urban setting, so I don't write him as inner city. I write him as a teen, who happens to be black, working through his own life circumstances in a college prep school. There's a lot more to him, obviously, and a specific reason I'm writing him black.

So I ask a couple of things. The first is why can't there be more books about kids, who happen to be of color, working through their life experiences? Doesn't automatically "segregating" them by only writing them in certain settings perpetuate stereotypes and maybe even racism? I'm all for seeing more writers of color published well. (Some of the writers I respect most are of color, and some of them are dear friends.) But should white writers back away from writing characters of color?

Some people might say yes, that since I've never lived the black experience I shouldn't write a black character. But I've never been a prostitute or heroin addict or committed to a psych hospital, either. Yet I've written those experiences with authority and authenticity, which is what good writers do. Perhaps there would be more "regular" stories about kids of color if white writers wouldn't feel reticent about creating about them?

Neesha Meminger said...

Wendy, you make a great point. I think this is exactly the crux of our discussion:
"...because most of the children's literature world is focused on giving kids what they want, so if you're thinking they need something other than what they want, that's something of a departure."

Focusing on what kids *want* is about profit. For instance, my 8-yr-old wants chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I, as her parent, am not going to give her chocolate three times a day because I want to feed her something nutritious, I want her brain to develop, and I want her to progress throughout her day with energy and vibrant health. The same is true for media images. Both my kids want whatever they see advertised on TV. They want to watch every popular film that comes out. I make the decision as to what they will get and watch based on what I think will, again, provide the ultimate nourishment for their minds, bodies, and souls.

Likewise, culture and media shape our children's perspectives. The images (or lack of) they see around themselves that reflect the world back to them inform their views of who they are and who they can be. If there are no images of young children of colour, that tells them they are invisible. If all they see are stereotypical images or images of victims, that is how they perceive themselves. Keep in mind that this is while white children get to see themselves reflected in the wide variety of roles available to them: in comedy, in drama, in fantasy, in history, as villains, as heroes, in joy AND in pain.

And, honestly, bloggers do play a significant role here. Bloggers have, however unwittingly, become creators of "internet culture" and images. Teens read blogs. My 8-yr-old goes online to do research for her projects. If all the books being reviewed are books written by white authors about the white experience (or by white authors ABOUT people of colour), then, once again, the world has become a place where people of colour don't exist, or exist marginally, stereotypically, or as historical victims.

I did a post about this some time back -- the fact that my 3rd grader believed Native Americans were extinct because all the books she read at school were about Indians that lived "long ago in tepees and wore feather headdresses." I couldn't convince her that Native Americans are alive and well and living among us today. She has never seen such depictions and so her world is shaped in such a way as to erase Native Americans completely from it. I have since done the research and found books that show Native American children in contemporary settings, but that is research *I* took on.

There is a place for historical fiction--personally, I love it--but there is such a need for more stories.

Bloggers don't create the problem, but bloggers can be an arm of publicity and marketing for a publisher and, as such, they can certainly be a huge part of the solution.

Also, Susan: get on that Cybils committee! Anne is offering, and I, for one, would love to see your outspoken self in a decision-making role :).

Christine said...

Hey - thanks for the question, Wendy. No I think I was misunderstood. In my essay for Writers On Racism I noted that while my daughter attended an summer program at an elite boarding school - the students from other countries focused on positive aspects and contributions from their cultures at the diversity showcase. The African American students focused on slavery and civil rights. Because it's all they know and all they are taught.

Likewise, At her middle school the asst. principal always chose a book for the all school read and lamented the "lack" of multicultural titles. So I asked a number of librarians (the KC area encompasses four systems across two states) and also queried the Rutgers list. We compiled works that even included a short autobiography written by the first Masai warrior to attend college (from his tribe). The author spends part of the year in the US and could have been an inspirational speaker. All the recommendations were ignored in favor of the book the asst. principal liked - an urban tale set around a ghetto, involving single parenthood and jail time. The kids groaned and began passing Artemis Fowl to each other. The required "reading" didn't happen.

My daughter now attends a college prep school that is predominantly free and reduced lunch. Also has the highest test scores in the district and state. And I can tell you the kids are SICK TO DEATH of civil rights being the only image they are presented. They even made a pact to NOT go see PRECIOUS or BLIND SIDE at the movies - but all have seen Avatar multiple times and cheer on the fact that Zoe Saldana is one of the leads (even though she is hidden behind computer graphics).

So it isn't that we don't need civil rights and slavery books or shouldn't give them to children as part of a larger "feast." It's that it has become the default. And publishers, sensing a market opportunity may be slamming authors into that "ghetto" because it automatically qualifies them for a CSK award which has less competition and hence they don't get the same market dollars or editorial support.

I think Bloggers do make a difference. But what won't help is adding POC to committees to advocate for their own because it implies a bias (something we worry exists in the system from the opposite end). We need to educate everyone else to look at all candidates with a broader lens and long-term outlook.

"Cuz the reality is a lot of urban children are turning off to reading for pleasure. And lack of variety and options featuring them is a major reason for that. They want to be heroes, get the guy (or girl) and dream of otherworlds too.

Instead we constantly remind them of the "skin they're in" instead of the broader world they belong to.

Colleen said...

YES Christine! I agree wholeheartedly! Slavery/Civil Rights/Holocaust books have become the default for Af American and Jewish teens. And there are so many excellent books already out there on these subject that I just don't get why they keep coming.

For my column at Bookslut I receive hundreds of MG and YA books a year - hundreds of them. And to the authors who wonder about "forcing" multi ethnic or GBTLQ characters into your stories, I would say think about this: many of the books I read have no reason for the characters to be any specific ethnicity at all. Their ethnicity has nothing to do with the story and yet all too often the author goes out of his or her way to describe the kid's blonde hair or blue eyes or pale skin. If you're talking a book like Sherman Alexie's then yes, the character's ethnicity was critical - he had to be Native American because that is what the book is about (ditto Neesha's main character in Coconut Moon who had to be Indian) but at least 75% of the time you have stories about kids fitting in or coping with parental issues or having issues with friends or teachers or school or ghosts or vampires or deep dark mysteries. And what color skin those kids have does not matter.

Except the authors and editors and publishers make a point of making them have white skin. And that is what I do not understand.

I just read a MG mystery last night "The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity" by Mac Barnett. The main character, Steve, is not physically described in the book but he is depicted as blonde on the cover. As I read it though, he introduces his best friend, a boy named Dana. Turn the page and there is a black and white drawing by Adam Rex (the book is a throwback to the Hardy Boys so it's in that style) and Dana is brown skinned with black hair. He looks Hispanic. And that's it - those are the only ethnic clues this book gives you on Steve and Dana because the book is about the mystery and not about their ethnicity. But in every single picture of them you have a boy with light skin and a boy with dark skin. And the boys are both smart and capable and funny.

It's that easy to make ethnicity a non issue, and just have a multicultural book that any kid - of any color - would enjoy.

(The book is very funny btw - and I recommend it!)

Finally, PLEASE note that NONE of this discussion has ever been about the Cybils doing things right or wrong. I'm a Cybs judge, I love the Cybs and I support them. The final lists along with the earlier nominating lists have just made all this that much more obvious so we all started talking about it.

Mrs. Pilkington said...

I do hope you join the Cybils committee, Susan -- and then invite some other change-bloggers in, too.

susan said...


Now how am I suppose to say no when you and Colleen are pushing in the door? lol

Was Anne asking me to serve?

Anne, I have no idea what you're asking so let me know how I can serve and I'm in.

I've been at work all day with no access and I come home very encouraged to see you all have continued to engage one another.

Thank you all.

Christine said...

For the record, I send multi kudos to Cybils for the daunting task of weeding through all the nominations (and extra hugs to the judge who gave my book a good review :-) ) The judges are not paid so double kudos for trying to do something positive.

Liz - that's so familiar what your friend went through. A lot of us get that. I was once told my characters didn't sound black (sigh)

Colleen - Iet's write about a Protag who is Black and Jewish to totally confuse the industry!

There's hope because there's good people on this blog thread and others. Only takes a few pure spirits to change the world! Tally ho!

Doret said...

I love that the Cybils exist.
There were many wonderful books nominated including those featuring POC.

The problem lies with the publishing industry. People can't nominated what isn't being published in the first place.

Also the Cybils lead to this discussion which is a very good thing.

Christine (and every one) - you should really check out the MG novel, I Wanna Be Your Shoebox by Christina Garica

THe MC- Yumi Ruiz Hirsch she's Cuban, Jewish and Japanese.

I loved that book

Anonymous said...

I've been publishing manga for about six years now, which put me "out of the loop" with the rest of the publishing industry. We have very culturally diverse staffs in our corner of the universe, and found that our readers would devour characters of any color/culture. Our readers themselves were of all colors, races, creeds, everything. I got used to that.

I spent the last year or two catching up on reading books from the rest of the industry (mostly YA), and was beginning to feel confused because all the POC books rec'd to me seemed to be solely about "civil rights, slavery, or poverty ghetto groove" as another poster said.

I'm beginning to understand why.

:::shakes head::: I'm white and I don't get this shit. I loved diversity in color and race even as a little girl. The whole world is diverse; why wouldn't a book be? Never thought to myself that a character had to or ought to be white. What's so great about white? I'm white and I'm just a person, like all other people.

But I talk to other, um, whites, and some of them say the strangest crap.

"Oh, I couldn't write a black character into my book. I don't know how they act!"


"Why would I read a book like that? I don't like Hip Hop."

IT'S NOT ABOUT "HIP-HOP" YOU MORON. IT'S ABOUT A PREGNANT TEENAGER! (Same person watched JUNO without batting an eye...sheesh...)

"Well, I want to accurately represent the setting I'm writing about, which just so happens to be 90% white, which is why all my characters are white."

So you're just going to ignore that the other 10% exist?

I honestly don't know how anyone lives in that blind a mindset. I don't know how anyone puts up with it. And all those examples are just other white writers, who don't even have the level of influence on publishing that white editors and agents do.

Thinking about this stuff really pisses me off. I'm going to go stew for a while. Not sure I've added anything productive to the conversation, other than a rant. Sorry about that.

Gavin said...

Susan - Brilliant, and thank you for voicing your anger. Now I have to red through all the comments.

Christine said...

I had a thought last night. My husband is a physician. He's also old school - the dying breed that likes to hold your hand and doesn't keep to the 15 minute appointment limit. Because he runs an inner city clinic (only a mile from our house) he sees and hears a lot of "stuff" and has to read a lot of technical journals to keep up his license.

My kids and I loved watching ER, and I devoured the book House of God while he was in residency. I've moved on but my kids are glued to Grey's Anatomy and House. But he won't touch those books/shows. Because when he's "off the clock" he wants to immerse in something else. Have fun. Be excited or fascinated by something new to learn. His position is "I live that stuff 24-7, why do I want to watch the fictional version for pleasure?"

So my theory is based on all the hoopla about Claudette Colvin's story (a topic well known and grumbled about in the black community already) is that acquiring editors are fascinated by the "something new." Or because they don't live in a black environment, are fascinated by the vicarious nature of what they view as the "authentic black experience."

On the other hand - are they the right people to edit multicultural work when their exposure to various cultures (real, not written) is so limited?

Anonymous said...


I might be able to contribute to a discussion about the lack of PoC in white writers' contemporary fiction. When I was getting my B.A. in Creative Writing, one of my professors (a person of color) told our Advanced Fiction class that white people should not write main characters of color, because that would be an act of cultural appropriation. He also told us that white people should not write secondary characters of color, because to do so would reinforce the notion that PoC are "sidekicks" to white people. By telling white writers not to write primary or secondary characters of color, my instructor was essentially telling us that white people should not write characters of color.

Let me make it clear that I am prepared to accept his statements as true. Just as I hope that a heterosexual writer would listen to my input on his or her queer characters, I am happy to listen to (and abide by) input from writers of color about my characters of color.

That said, I question whether it is productive to teach white writers to write only white characters. Unless my instructor was an anomaly, other writing classes have been told the same thing. I cannot see the benefit of teaching a generation of white writers not to write about people of color; it seems wiser to teach white writers *how* to write about characters of color (sad as it is that such lessons are even necessary).

Perhaps I'm off-base. I am all ears (or, since we're on the interwebs, eyes): is it acceptable for white writers to write about characters of color? Under what circumstances? How should writing race be taught? I understand that there is not one gold-standard of an answer out there--I'm sure that there will be as many answers as there are individuals doing the answering. I'm just curious as to how people think about this issue.

Thank you for reading, and for hosting this discussion.

Karen L. Simpson said...

Writer to writer here is the problem that many white writers tend to ignore. White people get to write about African Americans, other POC and anything else for that matter and get published. Most books ( Like "The Help ( don’t get me started about this book) or Neil Gaiman's Anansi’s Boys or James Patterson's Alex Cross or most of the children and YA books about POC are written by white people.

I would be okay with that if more POC could write about ourselves and get agents and publishing deals. The cultural appropriation come in when white people get to write about who they perceive POC to be, but POC don't get to have an equal and quite frankly more valid part in the publishing conversation.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for taking the time to respond. If I understand what you're saying, you'd find it more appropriate for white writers to write about POC if writers of color were better represented in the publishing industry. If I'm wrong, please correct me.

Your answers lead me to more questions *grin*. Question one: what can I do to improve the representation of POC in publishing? As a librarian, I order, booktalk, and blog about books by POC. What else would help?

Question two: until POC get a truly equal voice in publishing, what should I do as a writer? I do not want to perpetuate the problem of white people writing about POC when actual POC do so without getting published. I also do not want to perpetuate the problem of white writers writing disproportionately-white worlds. Given those parameters, I'm not sure how to proceed.

Because this is the internet, and it doesn't come with vocal inflections, I want to state outright that I am not asking these questions defensively. I'm sincerely looking to improve as an ally to POC.

Thank you again for your insights and your time. Have a beautiful day!

Neesha Meminger said...

jl, I love that you're asking the questions, and I love that you're trying to make the connections between queer awareness and issues and those raised here, in this discussion, about poc.

So, in that light, how about if we try to re-frame the question: we live in a world where the lives and issues of the LGBTQ communities are continually erased, dismissed, or misrepresented. Heterosexual writers are given tons of opportunities to express themselves and tout their relationship status, and do. They are validated constantly for being heterosexual and living het lives. Yet, some of these het authors are aware of the disparities in what is represented, and are genuinely interested in creating positive change. They know that they will have opportunities to write gay characters in their novels, and they know that they'll likely be patted on the back for their amazingly "authentic" portrayal of these characters. And at the same time, many, many LGBTQ writers will have their manuscripts dismissed as too "niche" or will be told in a variety of ways, that their writing is not marketable. Or maybe that no one really wants to read about a gay or lesbian teen who is powerful, revels in his/her sexuality, and also saves the day.

But the heterosexual writers who want to be allies, who see that there is a problem and want to be part of the solution, want to write strong, powerful, nuanced les/bi/gay/trans characters into their novels, and their hearts are truly in the right place. What would you say to those writers? How could they write LGBTQ characters respectfully, multi-dimensionally, and yet still honor the fact that they are exercising a privilege rarely enjoyed by the majority of LGBTQ writers?

And please know that this, too, is a genuine question . . . we are all searching for answers here, and we'll make far more progress if we do it together.

Anonymous said...


You ask the great questions, "What would you say to those writers? How could they write LGBTQ characters respectfully, multi-dimensionally, and yet still honor the fact that they are exercising a privilege rarely enjoyed by the majority of LGBTQ writers?"

I'm afraid that the quality of my answers don't rise to the quality of these questions. What would I say? It may sound rudimentary, but I would ask those allies to remember that first and foremost, to write LGBTQ characters is to write about people. Heterosexuals' lives are not only shaped by their sexuality, and neither are LGBTQ people's.

I would also point out to ally writers that there is no definitive "LGBTQ experience." A white lesbian in New York City and a Latino bisexual in Arkansas are going to have two dramatically different stories to tell.

This next part may sound cold, but I would ask ally writers not to let the back-patting that you mentioned (for writing an "'authentic' portrayal") go to their heads. While it is truly exciting when a writer outside of the LGBTQ community creates a strong LGBTQ character, it's hard to forget that writers from *within* the community have been doing so for years to little notice or acclaim. It would serve the ally writer well to state that fact, openly and immediately, any time someone praised the "authentic" portrayal.

Finally, I would have a lot more respect for a heterosexual writer who wrote LGBTQ characters *and* actively advocated for the LGBTQ community than for one who simply wrote, took the money, and ran. Art doesn't happen in a vacuum, and if a writer gets accolades for a LGBTQ portrayal in his or her work, I want to see the writer give back to our community somehow.

Since I'm keenly aware that being LGBTQ is not interchangeable with being a POC, which of these points apply to writing about POC? (Or about LGBTQ people, even--just because I'm queer doesn't mean I'm right. *grin*)

Thank you for the opportunity to think through these questions. When I first read them, I had that panic that accompanies a total lack of answers. After reflecting for a while, I feel like I at least have a place to start.

Happy almost-Friday : )

MissA said...

I love reading all these comments and the great discussion!

You make some great points and they can be applied to poc. Remember, poc are people first too. Do your research, ask questions and be prepared to accept the fact that someone is going to take issue with your work. One Black person may love a Black character in your novel because she's realistic, another Black person may hate her because she's unrealistic.

Neesha did an amazing essay that you should read here:
Here's some more great links:
And for fantasy:
And finally

I hope these are helpful! I'm so glad you're asking these questions. All the points you make above can be applied to poc, you can accept praise for your book about a poc, but then point out other books about poc that way too often get under represented.

Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for all of these links. My browser right now is a hilarious cascade of tabs : ) I'm eager to read each of these blog posts, particularly the one about writing race in fantasy novels. I write fantasy, and I've heard nothing but good thing about Malinda Lo's "Ash" (I can't keep it on the library shelf long enough to read it myself!)

Unrelatedly, great photo! What a cool mask.

Have a lovely, peaceful weekend.

Neesha Meminger said...

jl ~

*perfect* answers. All applicable to poc, too :).


MissA said...

Hi Jl,
So glad the links are helpful! Definitely read Ash and Neesha's book, Shine Coconut Moon :D

Thanks the mask was for a mardi gras party. Have a great weekend.

I hope everyone continues to read, review and lbog about books by/about poc, what you all do is so important!

Malinda Lo said...

I've been reading this discussion with so much interest, but to Neesha, JL and Miss Attitude in particular, I just wanted to say: awesome! And not b/c you mentioned Ash, but b/c you so succinctly mentioned so many things I've been thinking about so for long, re: LGBT characters in YA.

Susan, thanks for bringing all this up. It's been steadily percolating in my head for days now. I'm really glad you continue to draw attention to these issues. Thank you.

Karen L. Simpson said...

I see others have gotten to answering your questions two more links I would add to you list especially since you write fantasy is the Great fantasy and Ebook publisher Drolerie press. They are kind of in the forfront of writing and diversity in fantasy.

also take a look at

hope these help as well. And hope to see your book on the shelves soon


Sam @ Parenthetical said...

This is a really valuable discussion, Susan; thank you.

I did want to add that there's another Cybils finalist with a black (or mixed-race, actually) main character: The Prince of Fenway Park, by Julianna Baggott, on the Middle Grade Fantasy/Science Fiction list.

I've only just started it, but the book seems to be very much about Oscar's feelings about his race and how it makes him feel left out and not entirely part of any world (he's adopted, by white parents).


susan said...

Hi Sam,

Welcome to the discussion. Someone did point out Oscar to me and I actually knew about the book but it paled to the majority of usual suspects. That's how it really happened for me: I saw more of the same and that grabbed my attention.

Back to Oscar, I'm currently reading and enjoying The Prince of Fenway Park. Will be sharing it with my young neighbor soon.


Marjorie said...

It's taken me a while to get to you - and I'm glad I've finally caught up with this vibrant conversation! I too was very excited in the build up to the Cybils shotlists coming out - and felt enormously deflated when I read through the lists. I think what comes through in all that everyone is saying here is that the string goes back further... More nominations need to come in and that means more books need to be published and then marketed to the mainstream. Libraries need to make a conscious effort to hold books from smaller/niche publishers …

I think a post written by Neesha in November really hits the button
- emerging writers of color need to be offered a level playing field – both in terms of learning their craft and in having the perspective they will bring to their writing readily accepted – including stories with poc where skin colour is only an issue because the plot demands it…

Tyhitia Green said...

I've been wondering too. As a Generation X-er, I grew up reading Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King, and wondered where the Black genre writers were.

It wasn't until I was legally an adult that I discovered Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, L.A. Banks, Octavia Butler, Brandon Massey, etc. Troy Cle is excellent! I hope to be added to the list too. Great post. Great point. :-D I am now a follower of this blog.