It is easy, as a white person, to forget about racism - especially in this Obama-centric time. We elected a black President, didn't we? Look at how far we've come!
It is easy, as a white bookseller in a predominantly white community, to look at the shop shelves and not see much of a problem when there are very few faces darker than your own staring back at you.
It is easy to look around at your own diverse bookshelves and know that you yourself are openminded, and believe with your optimistic liberal heart that the tides are turning, the winds are changing.
But they're not, really. Not enough. Not fast enough and not deeply enough. And we're all complicit. Every single one of us.
There is huge outrage over the issue of Bloomsbury's cover for Justine Larbalestier's LIAR. And there should be. It was a stupid decision to take a book about a biracial girl and slap a picture of a white girl on it. It was a shameful decision. It was a wrong decision. And the publisher's response to the outcry is, frankly, a pile of shit:
“The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?” (from PW, here)
Since the author herself has specifically stated that Micah (the main character in LIAR) is black, and if readers believe otherwise, it undermines her entire book, then YES I BELIEVE SHE IS TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT RACE. And I think it's pretty lucky for the publisher that this book is about a liar, because it allows them to craft this supposed truth about why they chose this cover (against the strong objections of the author), when it looks like nothing more than more of the same crap I have been hearing for years: books featuring black faces on the cover don't sell.
But what, exactly, have we done to change that? I'm not talking about the people at The Brown Bookshelf or Color Online. I'm talking about us - the great whitewashed book community. The publishers, the booksellers, the librarians, the bloggers, the reviewers. What have we done? Sure, there are pack leaders among us, people fighting against this stuff every day - but the greater majority of us have been pretty complacent. And many of us have admitted in our blogs this week (as I am doing, right now) that we haven't been reviewing many books about people of color. I just looked back at my review posts, and since I started this blog there have been exactly three books reviewed featuring POC on the cover. Three. And of those, two of them (CHAINS and FLYGIRL) are historical fiction.
The third was SUGAR PLUM BALLERINAS, about which I wrote the following:
This book is so, so charming, AND the little girl is African-American as are some of her new friends but it is not remotely about that. It is just what we keep wishing for - a lovely little book about a black child where race isn’t an issue at all. Every child likes to read books about kids who look like them and guess what, publishers? Every child isn’t white. I hope this becomes a series.
I wrote that over a year ago, and wow, just LOOK at all I did to try to get this point across to publishers!
Oh wait. No, I really didn't. I haven't, really, and not enough of us have. Not loudly enough, not often enough, and not together enough.
If we HAD been, if we has a book community had truly been focused on this, it wouldn't have taken until now for a major author in a major publication to ask why the Caldecott Medal has never been won by a single African-American illustrator. (Leo and Diane Dillon, an interracial married couple, have won twice.) And the author? Nikki Grimes. A black author herself. She shouldn't have had to point this out, and it shouldn't have been a shock to any of us. It certainly was one to me, though. Because just stop and think about this for a few minutes. Stop and think about the people who you probably assume have won a Caldecott, but in truth have not:
And if they've never won, how are Don Tate and Floyd Cooper and Sean Qualls and Brian Pinkney and Nina Crews and Leonard Jenkins and Shadra Strickland (and, and, and, and) ever supposed to do it?
I look at these names and I cannot believe that FREIGHT TRAIN wasn't a Caldecott winner. Or LET IT SHINE. Or THE OTHER SIDE. Or ROSA. Or WE ARE THE SHIP. My daughter and I both love THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT, but just open WE ARE THE SHIP and look at the way Nelson plays with light and tell me that it didn't deserve to be recognized. Or open MOSES and explain to me why FLOTSAM won instead. Do not misunderstand me: I think FLOTSAM is an incredible piece of work, and David Wiesner is a fixture at my old shop and a lovely and extremely talented man, but the art in MOSES is also extraordinary.
And how many Caldecott committees can possibly look at Jerry Pinkney's work and put him on the Honor list...again? I do not care how many Coretta Scott King awards these artists have won. I DO NOT CARE. Jerry Pinkney's won five. It doesn't equal a Caldecott.
After I'm done thinking about this, I move on to thinking about related things that have bothered me that I never addressed with a publisher or a sales rep. The book BASS ACKWARDS AND BELLY UP and its sequel, FOOTFREE AND FANCYLOOSE, feature four girls - 3 white, 1 biracial. The covers? Three girls, all white.This particular slap is one I see over and over and over again: a book features characters of more than one race, but the cover only pictures white kids. So not only do white people only buy books with white people on them, they only buy books with ONLY white people on them?
The picture book TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES is one I love and have sold many copies of, but why, in a book celebrating the sameness of all of us despite our skin color/nationality/place of residence, does the final baby and mother - the true subjects of the book - have to be white? Don't we already have enough new baby books that feature little white babies? (There are some good ones featuring black babies, but not enough, and in those books all of the other people pictured are black too.) Do all of the books about Asian babies have to be about adoption or food or Chinese New Year? (Are there even any books about Hispanic babies?)
Why aren't there more books like CORDUROY, where the little girl just happens to be black and that's just that? She just IS. It's not part of the story. It's not a slave narrative or a book about surviving a crack house or a book where every other character is also black. It's a sweet book about a little bear and the girl who takes him home, and she isn't white, and you know what? White people have been just fine with that since 1968. White people have also been purchasing the work of Mr. Ezra Jack Keats for decades, and oh look - what's that on THE SNOWY DAY? A little black boy! When GRACE FOR PRESIDENT came out a couple of years ago, I was so happy to see that Grace was black and her classmates were a motley assortment of races. And guess what? We sold a whole lot of copies of that book because it was a good book and good books sell. Crap doesn't sell no matter who's on the cover.
And if there aren't covers with black faces on them, then of course they don't sell. But there aren't any on covers because those covers don't sell (supposedly). And around and around and around we go.
I don't know what to do about this, except to start speaking up. Loudly. Persistently. Often. Speak up until I'm heard. Until we're heard. I've been sleeping for too long, and I'm ready to help change this. I don't know if I can, but I know I can't look past it for another minute.
And I'm taking the August Color Me Brown Book Challenge. I've got a whole lot of books that are going to have to wait awhile longer. The brown books have been waiting long enough.
This is 2009, right? And supposedly the world is more politically correct, more sympathetic. People are trying not to say things like "that's so gay!" when a friend is being silly or weird or nonsensical or annoying, for instance.
So why do I have to open up not one, but two middle-grade novels this month, to find the word "retard" being used in place of idiot/moron/buttface/goof/weirdo/whatever? I'm sorry - didn't we decide quite awhile ago that calling people "retard" was offensive?
I understand the use of offensive words if the context requires them or is bettered by them. But when one character thinks another character is doing something dumb, aren't there a lot of other things for the first character to call the second besides "retard"? WHY YES. YES THERE ARE. Calling someone retarded or a retard is incredibly offensive to those who have someone with special needs in their life. It's offensive to people who have special needs. And, yes, I think it's just offensive, period. It's a charged word, and charged words should be used carefully.
It's one thing if you have a kids' book about an 8th grader who has a younger brother who's maybe autistic and they have to deal with the younger brother being called a retard at school. It's another thing entirely when someone falls down a flight of stairs in front of their entire class and stands up, saying, "OMG, I am SUCH a retard!" I'm betting if I asked these authors why they didn't have the character saying something like "OMG, I am such a faggot!" that the authors in question would respond, "Well, "faggot" is so offensive!"
And saying things like "well, it doesn't offend ME," is not a good excuse on any planet. It doesn't matter if you don't find it offensive. It matters that it is found offensive, period, by a large, large number of people.
Shouldn't we be even more careful in kids' books? Aren't the school years already fraught with insulting words and hurtful names? Aren't we supposed to be teaching kids to teach others with respect? Because kids are repeating what they read in books just like they're repeating what they hear in movies or from their parents' lips, and if you think they're not, you're not paying very close attention.
I am not advocating censorship. I am married to a First Amendment scholar, after all. I am just saying that when you have a wealth of words to choose from, could you just choose a word that a huge swath of the population DOESN'T find personally offensive?
(And I'm not just blaming the authors, here. What about the editors? The agents? The early manuscript readers?)
If I'm reading your ARC and I come upon that word, under the circumstances I've described above, that's it for me - that's the end of my experience with that book.
Is being able to use that word really worth turning off readers? Reviewers? Booksellers?