It’s story time at the Dimond Branch of the Oakland Public Library, and librarian Miriam Medow sits before a group of about 30 kids and parents — black, white, Latino, Asian American and Arab American. First Medow leads them in a song where everyone gets to blow raspberries, and then she reads about the all-animal cast in Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. Medow says one of the toughest parts of her job is finding enough books that reflect this very diverse neighborhood.
“That means a great variety of races and religions and sexualities and experiences of disability and so much more,” Medow said in an interview.
Every child, Medow said, quoting an old publishing ideal, should be able to read books that are both a window on the world, and a reflection of their own lives. But when I asked if she finds enough of those books, she said, “No. Never enough. Not yet.”
That’s a concern for Solomon Makoni, a Zimbabwean American with a white wife who brought their three year-old son Tadashe to Medow’s story time.
“We both want him to see himself in the books that he reads,” Makoni said. “To teach him he’s no different. And once you see yourself among your books, or see superheroes who look like you, then you can dream big.”
More than half of U.S. children under the age of five are like Tadashe — children of color. But only about 14 percent of the kids’ books published in 2015 were authored by or featured people of color.
Those statistics come from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, where Megan Schliesman is a librarian, and has been tracking diversity numbers since 2002.
“And they’re always abysmally low,” Schliesman said.
The issue, Schliesman said, is one that comes up again and again among librarians and publishers at conferences on children’s books around the country.
“There are overall good intentions in the publishing industry,” Schliesman said, “but I think there is a big gap between those good intentions and the reality of what is being published for children and teenagers.”
Two Local Startups
Back in Oakland, Janine Macbeth is trying to close that gap.
“I can attest to the fact that our communities are hungry for these books,” she said.
Macbeth is the founder of Blood Orange Press, a kids book publisher devoted to making kid-lit more diverse, and we’re sitting in her office and studio, really the walk-in closet of her bedroom.
Macbeth, who lives just a few blocks from the Dimond Library, shows me an illustration for one of the three books she’s published, a story about a Latino boy who defies gender rules. “The author, Laurin Mayeno, based the book on her son,” Macbeth said, “who, when he was in preschool, wanted to be a princess for the school parade.”
Macbeth is mixed race, Chinese American on her mom’s side, African American on her dad’s. She loved libraries and books as a kid. “But I noticed that my community wasn’t reflected in the books,” she said, choking up a bit. “So I started to think that books weren’t an option for me, because of my race.”
She gave up her dream in college, but a few years ago, Macbeth said, she worked up her courage and founded Blood Orange Press with a small Kickstarter campaign. “I’m going to create an institution that embraces our stories, and sees them as worthy of being shared.”
Macbeth’s print runs are tiny, just five to 10 thousand books. But she’s part of a ripple of change in the big ocean of publishing. Across the bay in San Francisco, there’s another ripple from Maya Christina Gonzalez.
“I always joke that they accidentally let me in, as a radical, queer, Chicana,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not the normal voice you tend to hear.”
Gonzalez runs Reflection Press out of a tiny Mission District Studio, where we talked while slightly crouched under the low ceiling and surrounded by dolls and mirrors and fabrics to inspire Gonzalez’s illustrations. She’s an award-winning illustrator and author, writing and illustrating 20 multicultural books for traditional publishers, and more at her own press. The newest book from Reflection Press, written the day after the fall election, is When a Bully Becomes President.
A Nationwide Movement
These two Bay Area startups aren’t so alone: they’re part of a recent wave of attention for diversity in kids books, led by We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a two year-old social media network with more than thirty thousand followers. The group came together after a 2014 publishing conference featuring an all-white, all-male children’s literacy panel.
“And social media gave a visual to the message,” said Dhonielle Clayton, an African American author in New York City who is also Chief Operating Officer for WNDB. “So we got to see a lot of different kinds of kids, and different kinds of families on Facebook and Snapchat. And we’d hear from teenagers and kids saying things like, ‘I’m in a wheelchair, and yes, I would love to be the hero of my own story.’”
Clayton said WNDB has set up a fund to provide grants to writers of color, and help pay for internships in the publishing industry, which is dominated by straight, white women.
“The publishing industry is not keeping pace with what the world really looks like and how it’s changing demographically,” said Jason Low, who runs Lee and Low Books, the only major U.S. publisher specializing in multicultural books.
Why the Numbers are Low
“The barriers for the mainstream publishers are really about perception,” Low said in a phone interview. “There is a widely outdated but constantly reinforced belief out there that diverse books simply don’t sell, and that’s not true.”
That bias is getting a small test from one industry giant. Crown Books for Younger Readers, part of Penguin Random House, has just released an anthology called Flying Lessons, edited by WNDB President Ellen Oh, with profits going to the group. Phoebe Yeh is an editor with Crown.
“Finally people are waking up and realizing we need to figure this out together,” Yeh said.
Just as the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign put pressure on Hollywood, We Need Diverse Books is pushing major kids book publishers to diversify.
“You know, maybe not this year,” Yeh said, “but in the next few years, the stats are going to look different.”
Megan Schliesman at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center said her fellow librarians have a responsibility as well, especially in a state where many work in small rural communities.
“If we are just letting those books sit on the shelf,” Schliesman said, “what message is it sending for kids in a predominantly white community about who we are collectively? Visibility says, ‘You matter. You matter in this classroom and school, you matter in this library, you matter in this community.’”
What’s at Stake
Many of those in the diverse kid-lit effort say the stakes are very high now, with a president who, they say, seems willing to scapegoat groups based on race or religion.
“I think the last year has shown us what can happen,” said Jason Low, “when someone in a leadership role dismisses large cross-sections of American based on ethnicity, gender and religious beliefs.
“I believe that if Donald Trump read diverse books while growing up, he would not be the same person he is today.”
That may seem a stretch, but back at the Dimond Library, I met Silwan Ali, a 13-year-old in a headscarf who came to story time with her little brother. I asked for her thoughts on Donald Trump, and his statements critical of Muslims.
“Yeah. I know Donald Trump,” she said. “Sometimes he really infuriates our feelings.” I asked her if it might change his mind if he read some of the books she’s reading about respecting diversity.
“It would mean to him a lot,” she said, “because he didn’t really know what our culture means.”