February 2010

Colleen Mondor

features

Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing

"Because I so rarely saw black characters in books when I was a child, I learned to relate to protagonists who didn’t look like me -- but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t identify with their struggles, triumphs, etc. It did mean, however, that I started to erase aspects of myself when I read -- I couldn’t consciously be black and read a lot of those books because then I’d realize there was no place for me in that imaginary realm. I didn’t pretend to be white, I just didn’t acknowledge my own erasure from the scenes that delighted me so much."- Zetta Elliott

"All throughout my childhood and teen years, I can honestly say that I did not read a single book with characters of colour. At least not one that stands out in my memory… Every book I read depicted white protagonists. Every movie and television show I watched (with the exception of Bollywood) portrayed whiteness in its myriad of expressions. I saw white children and teens being and doing just about everything. I grew up believing that to be South Asian in a world where you were either black or white meant being invisible." - Neesha Meminger

I have been trying for days to write an article about the lack of diversity in middle grade and young adult fiction and found myself confounded at every turn. This has been a very intense subject lately in the literary blogosphere, as readers have bounced from one discussion to another on issues of race, religion and ethnicity. From the meanderings at the School Library Journal Heavy Medal blog about the inclusion of a dark-skinned secondary character in Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning When You Reach Me, to multiple discoveries of covers that depict light-skinned characters who are described as dark-skinned within the text, and the depressing realization of just how few titles were nominated for the Cybils with Kids of Color, race overshadowed even the ALA award announcements. The cover issue, a very visual representation of what is wrong in publishing, brought into question just how much control authors have over the presentation of their stories, and in particular continues to be a sore spot among many readers and writers. From author Kekla Magoon:

Specifically regarding the cover controversy issue, the blogosphere conversation seems to have overlooked a key component to the issue: taking time to fully examine WHY the publishers whitewash the covers. From what I’ve read, all the time is spent talking about why they shouldn’t. But why do they? Obviously: To Make Money. And someone, somewhere has convinced them that whitewashed books sell better.

The cover issue is only one aspect of a much larger problem: why it is acceptable to still believe (and use as a business model) the notion that Caucasian readers will not relate to Kids of Color in general titles? Is this an issue that originates with publishers, or does it lie with “gatekeepers” like librarians, large booksellers, and big-box stores? The widely perceived misconception has resulted in a pigeonholing of ethnic characters, and has provoked a backlash on the issue of book covers, as one author recently shared with me:

I actually didn't want an African-American girl on the cover (in general I don't like photographs on covers; am much more drawn to iconic covers). However, (and wrongly so) the publisher thought that having an African-American girl on the cover would draw interest from librarians and booksellers looking for Black History Month titles... never mind that my book is not a traditional BHM title, as it's a contemporary novel where race is not a pivotal plot point.

Frustration on this issue reached a boiling point online with the second recent release from Bloomsbury of a title with a protagonist described as dark-skinned in the text, but depicted as white-skinned on the cover. This prompted one blogger to demand a boycott of the publisher, and numerous sites to consider their own lopsided coverage for titles with Caucasian protagonists. Do covers really work? For everyone who has stated they “never judge a book by the cover,” there were many who could not recall the last book with a kid of color they had reviewed or ever read. While there was no small amount of navel-gazing over this issue (many bloggers saw it as a “teachable moment”), the inclination to change was palpable, and Susan of Color Online promptly created a Facebook page for Readers Against Whitewashing. She feels, however, that covers are only one significant part of the larger problem:

When you grow up in an environment where you are always invisible, when everything associated with fun, good-looking and valued is white, you stop looking for yourself. Teens and children I know gravitate to what has been promoted to them -- white kids having the kind of adventures they want.

One side topic that came out of the cover controversy was the issue of author involvement. There have been dozens of public comments from authors commiserating over the difficulty they face when a publisher chooses a cover they do not feel best represents their story. Interestingly, however, when I began specifically asking authors who had Kids of Color on their covers how much input they were given in the cover process, I learned that there is no single answer for the author/cover designer relationship:

I didn't like the first three covers... all three of them had either a photo of a black girl, or a black girl and her mother. I just didn't think they represented my character because of the way the models were dressed, etc. So I found a picture on a stock photo site, and I chose to use that one for my cover instead.

Also:

The cover featured the character's hand reaching toward a few props. They sent me a prelim and I said, "That's great, but she's mixed."  They said "Oh."  And immediately altered the skin tone.

However, some publishers get it right from the beginning:

I had no say on the cover. (I was just thrilled to be published.) Then one day I got the final cover in the mail. I was shocked. I had never seen a contemporary Asian American on a kids' book cover before, and a photograph, no less. I wasn't sure what I thought of it. It was so different. (This was in 2003.) Later I was told that it was a first.

And also:

I just got the cover image for the new edition coming out this summer. While I'm sad to report that the models have suffered the same decapitation that seems to affect so many YA cover models these days, Misty is still clearly and happily non-Caucasian.

In a blog post from last year concerning the cover of her book Shine, Coconut Moon, Neesha Meminger pointed out how confused some designers can be when it comes to religion:

…the bigger battle for me was the one about accuracy. Having an image of a Hindu deity on a book about a Sikh family was not about opinion or interpretation. It was just wrong, as in it was inaccurate. And that would have been a misrepresentation of the contents of my novel. For that, I was willing to battle till the very end (luckily, I did not have to).

Accuracy is a valid point, and it stretches far beyond skin color to an overall honesty about story itself, and how appealing that honesty itself can be to readers. Putnam editor Timothy Travaglini approached Sherry Smith’s Flygirl with these thoughts in mind:

Given [the] dominant narrative thread in Flygirl, about Ida Mae Jones’ struggles with her own race and skin-color, and the effects on her and her family as she “passes” for white in an environment where blacks were not allowed; we particularly hoped, even, that this would be a strong hook, that this would be appealing to readers, whatever their individual race or background might be. As we designed the jacket, any discussion we had would have centered around whether or not we got the girl right, was she as accurate a representation of the heroine as possible.

This is not to negate the feelings, however, of those authors who contacted me with frustration over the fear that consumed them when faced with inaccurate covers after struggling so hard for honest content. The repercussions they faced for battling editors has not gone unnoticed:

It's not a blameless, faceless other we're blaming. Somebody who decided to write a character of color is no more happy to see a white girl on her cover than anyone is. But our editors, our publishers, our marketing departments are the ones who decide to cover us that way….Please, as an author who fought to make sure the kids on her cover were not all white and now can't sell a second book because she's "difficult", believe me when I say we are fighting from the inside. And we are losing there, too.

Also:

This industry runs very much with the knowledge that there are sixteen writers waiting to take your place, who are willing to shut up and be agreeable, so they openly treat writers with contempt. I had to continually throughout the copyediting process write notes and send mail when they would change my words regarding a character of color. For some reason, copyeditors have a serious problem with an African-American girl turning ashy when she pales. They really, really want her to turn white. They want her knuckles to turn white when she's scared. They insert stupid, coffee metaphors for skin color, and add words like kinky about the hair.

From the many conversations I had over the past month, the only thing that is clear when it comes to diversity and publishing is its utter and complete lack of consistency. An author might have no say in a cover, and the result will be a white model -- or, conversely, the author might end up with a photographic image that perfectly captures their ethnic protagonist. What is particularly confusing about the lack of consistency is that all too often the result is the "safer" choice, and not just because of the fear that the "wrong" choice could alienate potential readers. The “gatekeepers” also keep Kids of Color off the cover and their bookshelves:

…my bestselling novel, has an ambiguous looking teen on the cover. All the others were clearly brown characters, and some booksellers/librarians have told me off the record that this hindered their purchasing as they don't have a "community to support such books."

While I try to wrap my head around just what community would support “such books” (and what on Earth “such books” are), I found myself becoming increasingly disheartened by how silly this all is. The assumptions based on not expanding diversity insist that Caucasian readers will only read books that are only (or predominantly, or at least advertised as being) about Caucasians -- and further, that enticing Caucasians to spend money on books is more important than providing an accurate depiction of America’s multicultural life. Further, the insistence that Kids of Color remain in a curriculum-based ghetto where they serve more as teaching tools then pleasure reading (Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, for example, versus Varian Johnson’s My Life as a Rhombus) might make some librarians think they are maintaining a diverse collection when they aren’t. For children and teens, this is especially dispiriting -- the way they fit into the larger world, after all, is a big part of what “coming of age” is all about.

Most of the books I read as a teen starred white characters. I’m hard pressed to think of more than a few “black” books I read. That didn’t seem strange to me at the time, but in retrospect I wish I would have had more access to diverse books. I don’t know if they were available to me and I simply didn’t choose them, or if there were few at my disposal. Knowing what I do now, I suspect I wouldn’t have looked for “black” books then. Unconsciously, I probably enjoyed that part of the fantasy as much as any character or storyline. A way to be white, in a place where everyone else was and I wasn’t. I find that a sad thing to write, but I’m sure it plays into my desire to see more [kids of color] in books now, because it could have been a heartening experience to read about the struggles of young black girls, whether I was able to directly recognize myself in them or not. - Kekla Magoon

Beyond skin color, beyond ethnicity, there is also the ongoing issue of including GBLTQ characters in middle grade and young adult literature, something that has become more important as more and more teens become victims of brutal hate crimes, and the issue of gay marriage keeps sexual orientation and equal rights in the forefront of national conversation. For many GBLTQ authors and bloggers, promoting diversity is a deeply personal issue:

The hardest part of being a teenager is being brave enough to be Real - but you've spent all these years watching movie after movie, and reading book after book, where what is possible and acceptable is all laid out for you... The Princess ends up with the Prince, cue the happily ever after. That's what everyone expects you to want, too. So when you're a guy who dreams of a Prince of your own (or a gal who dreams of a Princess) the power of a story with YOUR kind of happily ever after is inestimable. I want Teens today to have what I didn't. It's why I blog, and it's the driving reason why I became a writer.- Lee Wind

While the number of YA books with prominent and positive GLBTQ characters has grown significantly over the past few years, there remained a definite need for Middle Grade books that include kids who are awakening to identities far different from their peers. At thirteen I knew I was gay, and every day I hear about children who come out at even younger ages. - Steve Berman

When I think about a queer teen reading today's YA, the first thing I wonder about is the baseline level of expectations. Let's say I'm a girl who's just come out, at age thirteen, in a small Midwestern town. Do I even expect to be able to find someone I would recognize and/or empathize with between the covers of a book? Maybe -- and I think it's more likely now than it would have been a decade ago -- but I'm not sure. And it seems to me that it's necessary to encourage and reinforce among minority readers -- whatever the nature of that minority status -- what I can only think of as the right sort of entitlement: the belief that yes, you should be able to experience characters whose lives in some way reflect your own… - Sara Ryan

What’s interesting about all this is that on the surface, few people are against diversity, and certainly almost no one in publishing is. Several authors noted that the more multicultural the editing staff, the more diverse the titles, and the higher the likelihood of a Kid of Color on a cover. But even if you only look at dollars, you can’t ignore the fact that a lot of best sellers are about Kids of Color. Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius (with a photo of an Asian American girl on the cover) has sold 450,000 copies. Clearly, a lot of kids identify with that character, just as they identify with Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Mitali Perkins’s Monsoon Summer, and Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last. As author Tanita Davis puts it: “I believe readers respond to a good story, period. While we’re all looking for ourselves in the crowd in books, I don’t think that our moment of synchronicity always has to center on race or even gender. More times than not, a character in a book resonates with a reader emotionally, I would think.”

So why are we having this discussion? Why is School Library Journal running Amy Bowllan’s highly successful Writers Against Racism blog? Why are there diversity reading challenges and reading lists and awards? Because as diverse as our society undeniably is, for one reason or another, the books we publish still are not. And then complicating the issue further, authors also have to consider that diversity can still serve as an unwelcome lightning rod:

The cudgel of "diversity" can also end up discouraging actual diversity. Because it's the books that actually do feature different kinds of characters that end up being criticized by well-meaning types. If you write a book about a bunch of straight white people, no one's going to say "Oh, that asshole only writes about straight white people," because -- guess what -- most writers only write about straight white people. But as soon as you add a gay character or a black character or whatever, it opens you up to attack from people concerned with this notion of "representation" who think you're getting it all wrong and are going to jump all over you for all the stupidest reasons that have nothing to do with anything. - Bennett Madison

In the end, one should always rely on the numbers as author Zetta Elliot makes clear: “…the Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps statistics on the kinds of books being published each year. That’s how I know that less than 5% of the 5,000 books published each year are by or about people of color… But the issue isn’t just with the number of books being published; it’s also a question of quality and diversity within that small pool.” And when one considers the size of that pool and then thinks about books that labor under the labels of “double diversity,” you can see just how hard it is for some authors and readers:

In 2009 there were dozens of white LGBTQ YA books. From the thirty I've read thus far, one was written by a Latino who used Latino characters, one by a black author whose characters are white, and one by an Asian author whose characters are also white. I can barely find MG lit with authentic Latino characters because most editors believe these stories will only garner a “niche” audience thus imagine finding a list of LGBTQ multicultural MG books? - Mayra Lazara Dole

In the end, though, the subject of diversity is a simple one. It means that what we read should reflect how we live. In America we are, and have always been, a melting pot. Our culture is full of words and styles and habits that come from dozens of countries and societies. We do not question our desire for regional food or music, and yet there is still a perceived tripping point, a moment of hesitation, when it comes to what we read. While it makes no sense why this is so -- why Simon Pulse will easily publish Kris Reisz’s Unleashed with an obviously mixed-race character on the cover, while Bloomsbury makes another choice for two of its titles, readers can't know. And yet the vast number of books that get the stories and covers right -- Charles R. Smith Jr.’s funny and poignant buddy novel, Chameleon from Candlewick; Sara Ryan’s sweetly dramatic lesbian romance, Empress of the World from Penguin; and the impressive life and work of modern-day African American biologist Tyrone Hayes found in Pamela Turner’s The Frog Scientist, another entry in the stellar Scientists in the Field series from HMCO -- all prove that good, honest, well-written books are what matter to readers, regardless of age. As Bennett Madison puts it: “Maybe Heather Has Two Mommies is helpful for a toddler in the same way a potty training book or a book about counting is helpful, but by the time we get to teenagers I don't think anyone is interested in mealy-mouthed pedantry. It's an embarrassment. Teenagers deserve real books, not condescending crap.”

So buck up, blogosphere, and get serious about supporting authors and publishers who give middle grade and young adult readers those “real” books. It’s been a long time coming, and we aren’t there yet, but one thing I have learned in all this is that we are on our way -- and one way or another, change is going to come.

I imagine that in many ways, young adult and children's literature is less flexible in these things than adult fiction. Young adult fiction is blessed -- or burdened -- with gatekeepers, people who are there to ensure that change doesn't happen too rapidly, to make sure that the children aren't compromised and that whatever family values and all are still in books. That's a powerful impetus, the desire to keep children safe, and to determine what they know and when. Safe, perhaps to some, means less exposure to potential negatives... like the lives and world of minorities.

"And when you write it out like that, it sounds just ludicrous, but you know, some of what we believe as human beings is fairly ludicrous, too. Prejudice is based in fear -- and fear of the unknown is a big player in this. We don't know each other, much, and it's easier to hide than to discover, as usual. It will take a really gutsy, risk-taking group of editors and publishing houses to make a change in the amount of diversity in children's literature. People are moving toward this, but it's in small numbers, and it’s painfully slooooow."  - Tanita Davis