[Feature image: Illustration from ‘Milo’s Museum’ by Zetta Elliott & Purple Wong, featuring Milo, a young Black girl, talking with her aunt Vashti on the front steps of her home. Milo listens, concerned, as her aunt explains why museums prioritize reflections of Whiteness.]
In this post: How the publishing industry silences authors of color and what young families can do about it.
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Navigating Racial Gatekeeping in Stories for Children
We talk about diversity without acknowledging that equity is just as important.
White women dominate the kid lit community–they represent the majority of editors, reviewers, agents, librarians, educators, and booksellers. Dominance isn’t healthy and the diet of books our kids have been consuming for generations hasn’t been healthy as a result.
A just approach means ensuring that ALL creators have an equal opportunity to tell their own story in their own way.
That means talking about the gatekeepers. This means holding accountable the folks who privilege creators outside the communities they seek to represent.
How prioritizing wealth & whiteness further isolates marginalizes kids
I was teaching in an after school program in 2001, and met a student who was being bullied because her mother was in prison. When I couldn’t find a book that matched her reality, I wrote An Angel for Mariqua.
The publishing industry to designed to serve a single market: middle-class Whites. So if you’re writing something that won’t appeal to that market–or that editors believe won’t appeal to that market–you’ll be shut out of the system.
I self-publish the books that have been rejected by editors so that folks know what kind of stories are being excluded.
If families are reading my indie books, I want you to know that your stories matter and you are worth fighting for. Your stores are worth supporting.
I’m trying to introduce readers to topics that have been conveniently erased from school textbooks, but not at the expense of a good story. I’m centering kids who are generally shoved to the margins. But lots of authors do that. I guess I’m unapologetic and I’m not afraid of unhappy or incomplete endings.
[Image: Pie chart titled ‘Racial Makeup of Publishing. Stats: 84% White/Caucasian, 5% Asian, 4% Mixed Race, 3% Hispanic, 2% Black/African-American (non-Hispanic), 2% Other. Provided by Zetta Elliott, source: The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2019.]
Readers must be intentional in subverting whitewashed marketing
If you see a book in a bookstore, someone made a choice to put it there – usually the store’s buyer. If the book is face out on a table near the front door, a publisher probably paid for that placement. Most indie stores won’t even carry self-published books. Libraries won’t add to their collection books that haven’t been reviewed in major outlets – but most major outlets dismiss indie books or charge a large fee to review them. It’s a system.
There’s a lot of money in children’s publishing, but it goes to creators of certain kinds of narratives.
I didn’t know how the publishing industry worked when I first started writing for kids. Now I know exactly how it works and I’m able to self-publish the stories that routinely get rejected by publishers.
The increase in intellectual property and packaged books destabilizes our understanding of authorship and I wonder where that will lead. Readers (and award committees) don’t know which books are traditionally authored and which ones aren’t.
But when I think about leaving the kid lit community, it’s over the lack of transparency. The few successful authors from marginalized groups often seem to promote the myth of meritocracy–“Just work hard and keep trying!”
I support different ways of publishing books, but folks deserve to know how a story was developed–especially when the story is developed by Whites but written by a person of color.
The biggest challenge for families is FINDING #OwnVoices kid lit creators
Folks can also ask booksellers and libraries to stock our books; make sure your kids’ school reading lists are inclusive. Do an inventory of your home library with your kids and be aware of the bias in your own collection–then do something about it.
Unfortunately, you can’t simply walk into any store–chain or indie–and expect to see #OwnVoices books by people with marginalized identities.
You many not be able to trust the folks who ordinarily tell you about great books–you’ll have to go beyond those sources if you want something different. White families should definitely follow Books for Littles! And sites like The Brown Bookshelf, Social Justice Books, We Are Kid Lit, American Indians in Children’s Literature, and The Bull Horn.
Writing Activism As a Self-Advocate
I’m very aware of the fact that I embody possibility — I never saw a Black woman writer until after I had graduated from college; I never read their work in school in Canada.
I’m hoping that my books and my determination to bring my stories into the world will let folks know that they can do it, too. I’m not sure that my work really is all that different. In some ways, I don’t feel like my work has grown–but my confidence has.
With Say Her Name, I really wanted readers to know that poetry is for everyone. I was (am!) insecure about my skill as a poet, but I still sat down and wrote some poems about topics that matter to me. Poetry can be really intimidating and the way it’s taught in school often makes people feel it’s dry, dull, irrelevant, and not for them. I hope the range of voices and forms in Say Her Name makes poetry accessible and appealing to those folks.
Collaborating with @OwnVoices as an Accomplice
As a non-autistic outsider writing Benny Doesn’t Like To Be Hugged, I knew I’d get something wrong even after doing research and talking to autistic kids and their families. I’m not autistic, and even though my narrator also isn’t autistic, she’s describing a boy who is. So there are several layers of distance and that leaves a lot of room for misrepresentation.
It meant a lot that Lyn Miller-Lachmann, an award-winning autistic author and friend, agreed to provide feedback on the story. We’re now collaborating on a middle grade novel in verse, Moonwalking.
I’m trying to broaden the representation of Black children and teens. I hope readers put down my books and reflect upon the complexity of Black people and our relationship to the past, present, and future.
Lighting The Path To Include All Voices
Your voice matters, so make your voice heard! Everyone has a story to tell and there are lots of different ways to tell that story.
I self-published the Find Your Voice workbook to help folks ease their way into writing.
It’s important to be clear about WHY you’re writing, and you need to be clear about your boundaries.
Have your own definition of success and remember that it’s not a meritocracy. If you believe in yourself and your stories, then you can manage your expectations of the industry.
Our Favorite Books for Littles by Zetta Elliott:
Books For Ages 4-8
Books For Ages 6-12
Zetta Elliott, PhD (she/her) is Black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Subvert Silencing Gatekeepers
Raising Luminaries & Books For Littles is reader-funded by cool folks like you. Join the Patreon Community so we can keep boosting the #OwnVoices activists & educators creating tools for the next generation of kind and brilliant leaders.