On a Tuesday night in late January, a mix of agents, editors, publicists, bloggers, media, and others gathered in downtown Manhattan to celebrate the launch of the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Committee, a group of publishing professionals committed to increasing awareness of the need for greater diversity in children’s books and in the houses that publish them. For the committee chairs, the lack of minority representation in children’s books is something they had been thinking about for quite some time. “Technically my whole reading life,” says Alvina Ling, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and vice-chair of the committee. When Ling started acquiring books as an editor, she says, “It became one of my missions to find books that I wish I had as a kid” – books for children who “maybe didn’t see themselves in the books that they were reading.”
Conversations as far back as 2010 between Ling and Nancy Mercado, executive editor at Roaring Brook Press and chair of the Diversity Committee, led them to seek out fellow editors who they knew shared their interest in advocating for a greater diversity of voices and perspectives in children’s books. “How do you begin to move the needle in some way other than your own acquisitions?” Mercado says. “The reality is that I may acquire 10 to 15 titles a year – it’s a very small list. Even if you are keeping an eye out and making sure your own list represents diversity, that’s a good starting point, but we wanted to see what factors were in the book industry at large, some of the bigger issues.”
Those issues are manifold: “Where do you begin?” says Mercado. “Get more diverse people in publishing? Sure. Publish and market more diverse titles? Yes, certainly. Are we doing everything we can to get these titles into the hands of diverse readers? How do we get more young people of color into the industry? You could spend your whole time on the committee just talking about that. How do you change the perception that diverse books don’t sell? You could spend years working on that. We all realized there were a lot of different spokes to the wheel.”
The group – which grew to include editors like Little, Brown’s Connie Hsu, Penguin’s Stacey Barney, and Scholastic’s Cheryl Klein – met informally for about a year until conversations with the CBC led to the group become formalized as an official CBC committee, dovetailing with the CBC’s interest in promoting diversity. “This industry is all about storytelling in voices that resonate with children and young adults,” says Robin Adelson, executive director of the CBC. “It’s critical that the voices represented be reflective of the diverse society in which we live. It is, therefore, our responsibility, as the trade association, to make sure our own voice reflects that same diversity.” The committee currently consists of ten members, mostly editors (Daniel Nayeri at HMH, Namrati Tripathi at S&S, and Stacy Whitman at Tu Books), but also including a publicity manager (Caroline Sun at HarperCollins) and a marketing manager (Antonio Gonzalez at Scholastic).
With the help of the CBC, the committee now has its own Web site with a regularly updated blog, an extensive Goodreads reading list (nearly 700 books strong) of “diversity-friendly” titles, and other resources. The group’s goals are outlined on the site (among them: “Visit high school senior level English classes to discuss careers in publishing”), and the Diversity Committee is [actively seeking partners] throughout the publishing industry, who have their own tasks, such as “Acquire and share non-traditional avenues in which to promote and sell diverse books with the CBC.” Immediately following the group’s January launch, 20 people emailed to sign up, and more than 80 individuals are using the group’s free Twitter “twibbon” to show their support.
According to Adelson, the CBC, led by events and library associate Ayanna Coleman, “effectively helped the committee transform initial thoughts and plans into a growing go-to site,” as well as providing a physical space to meet monthly and “discuss issues of interest, matters of concern, and next steps.” For their part, the committee members are glad for the support. “You have the power and infrastructure of the CBC behind you,” says Mercado, “to help keep us on track, remind us what we said we wanted to do, and help us stick to our deadlines.”
In keeping with the group’s goals, two committee members, Cheryl Klein and Antonio Gonzalez of Scholastic, along with author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (Eighth Grade Superzero), visited the Bushwick Leaders High School for Academic Excellence in Brooklyn during Children’s Book Week to discuss their paths into the publishing industry; the committee plans to coordinate such visits twice a year.
Stories about how committee members entered publishing are a core part of the Diversity Committee’s blog, and that’s by design – they’re meant to open teens’ eyes to the possibilities of a career in publishing. “We want to say, ‘Look, you don’t have to know somebody in the industry, you don’t have to take this traditional path,’ ” Mercado says. “Each person [on the committee] had a different route. We want to show young people who might want to get into publishing that there are many ways to get your foot in the door.”
This week, the committee launched the “It’s Complicated” blog series, featuring posts from people working throughout the industry: on Tuesday, author Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote about the discomfort and fear writers have when working outside their cultural comfort zone, and agent Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel wrote Wednesday about agents’ role in demonstrating to publishers that there is a market demand for diverse voices. The series has already attracted more than 13,000 page views and 40 comments on Leitich Smith’s post.
Mercado stresses that the members of the diversity committee are open to suggestions from all corners, and that this is just the beginning. “None of us are experts in this area, but we all see a need for something like this. It can only happen from everybody getting involved,” she says. “It’s one thing to have editors acquiring diverse books and another to sell them and find the readers,” Ling adds. “Every level needs to be on board.”