Prominent African-American and Hispanic children’s book publishers, publicists, agents, and authors were featured on the BookCon panel “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” held on Saturday, May 31. It’s a perennial hot-button topic that generated much discussion in the wake of critique of the original all-white, all-male lineup for the children’s “Blockbuster Reads” panel.
Moderated by Troy Johnson, head of the African-American Literary Book Club, and organized by Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, CEO of Literary Media and Publishing Consultants, the panel focused on the lack of availability of ethnically diverse children’s books in schools, libraries, and bookstores, and opened with a history of African-American children’s book publishing in the U.S., presented by Wade Hudson, co-founder of the children’s book publisher Just Us Books. Despite some strides made in the last four decades, the problem persists, said Hudson, using examples based on personal experience and historical information.
When Hudson and his wife Cheryl formed Just Us Books in 1988, their goal was to make children’s publishing more inclusive. “We established black book festivals and conferences, organized visits to schools and libraries, and courted the media to bring attention to this important entry into traditional kids’ book publishing,” he said. “At the time, there were 300 black bookstores, including barber shops and hair salons that sold books. When Random House launched the One World imprint in 1991, Hudson said, it was the first mainstream publisher to create an imprint devoted to multicultural titles. Lee & Low Books was founded in 1993 for children of color, and in 1998 the Harlem Book Fair was created, an annual event that is held every summer. “But the movement didn’t continue,” said Hudson, “and it’s time for a new movement for the world in which we now live.”
A common thread of the discussion was that children need books that reflect the world they live in. Bernette Ford of Color Bridge Books, a packaging and consulting company, addressed the audience next, “When I started out in the industry, in 1972, there were very few published books about children of color," she said. "Just as white children will feel valued by seeng themselves illustrated in children's books, so black children will feel as if they are not valued when they don't see images of themselves in children's books - and white children will feel that children of color have no value." Ford was the founder of Cartwheel Books, an imprint of Scholastic, and was editorial director for Cartwheetl for more than a dozen years. "All children, black and white and brown and yellow and red need to see themselves and their lives reflected in the books they read."
Serendipity Literary Agency president Regina Brooks, author of Never Finished, Never Done! (Scholastic), echoed Ford’s sentiment. “We have to champion the forgotten, marginalized black writers,” she said. “Speaking as an agent, there’s a need for soldiers out there who know how to sell books for children of color to publishers. This is critical.”
Author and historian Tonya Bolden, who has written more than a dozen children’s books, said her credo is “All the children need all the books.” Children of color, she continued, should be conversant in all aspects of U.S. history – not just their own. “What about the Trail of Tears, or the men who built our railroads?” she asked. “Kids have to know all of our history.”
The timing of the panel was interesting, coming so close on the heels of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, but organizer Lloyd-Sgambati emphasized that the panel was six months in the making and would have happened regardless of recent events. “I started working on it in December of last year,” she said. “And I’ve been wanting this to happen for much longer than that. Books open a world of opportunity for kids, and that’s why I founded the African-American Children’s Book Project over 20 years ago.” The resulting book fair in Philadelphia is the largest of its kind.
Patrik Henry Bass, editorial projects director at Essence and debut children’s book author of The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, illustrated by Jerry Craft (Scholastic, Aug.), spoke about starting the magazine’s book section a decade ago. “Our readers kept asking me, ‘Where are the children’s books?’ and my mission now is to have them in every single issue of Essence,” Bass said. “Novels written by black authors have moved from being considered ‘protest fiction’ by the critics to finding a growing place among mainstream readers.”
Harlyn Pacheco co-founded Qlovi, which creates digital reading experiences aimed at boosting literacy among multi-ethnic children. The aim is to address what he called “our staggering literacy crisis. I think it’s rooted as much in income disparity as [in] the lack of publisher commitments to multi-ethnic children’s books.” In addition to distributing e-books to K-12 channels for 20 publishers, Pacheco also organizes summer reading programs, and encouraged audience members to do the same.
The panelists offered concrete ideas about how to increase the number and visibility of books for children of color. For Hudson, finding alternative ways to get the books out there is essential. “You can’t depend on bookstores for your sales,” he said. “Festivals, conferences, and special sales opportunities are critical.” Lloyd-Sgambati agreed: “Do your research. Find unique ways to promote them, including in churches. You have to cultivate relationships with vendors, too, such as Africa World and Baker & Taylor,” she said. “There are books, but you have to find them.”
Correction: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article misquoted Bernette Ford. Also, Ford was founder of Cartwheel Books, not president, as it originally appeared.