Home Book Collections Subverting Racist Gatekeeping in Kidlit with Activist Author Zetta Elliott

Subverting Racist Gatekeeping in Kidlit with Activist Author Zetta Elliott

via Zetta Elliott

[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.

Books For Littles is free and accessible for readers who can’t afford a paywall. Posts may contain affiliate links, which allow commissions to support this website at no cost to you. If you’re pairing this advice with a trip to the library or your local bookstore (please do!), you can also help me create more spotlights like this on Patreon.

Even though I’ve been giddy at the idea of featuring Zetta Elliott on a Maker Spotlight since way before I connected with her, Zetta is currently a Patreon community supporter. For more info on how we keep things on the up & up, check out the full Raising Luminaries statement of accountability. – Ashia R.

Navigating Racial Gatekeeping in Stories for Children

Maker Spotlight with author & activist Zetta Elliott, PhD

[insert headshot here]

Author Zetta Elliott

[Image: Photo of Zetta Elliott smiling at the camera. Photo courtesy of Bianca Cordova Photography.]

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.

Racial publishing pie chart

[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.

Black Lives Matter Skateboard Sticker
[Image: Illustration from ‘A Place Inside of Me: A Poem To Heal The Heart‘ by Zetta Elliott & Noa Denmon, featuring a child whom I perceive as masculine and Black, wearing a Black hoodie and blue camo pants. We catch the child mid-leap on a skateboard. On the underside of the skateboard are stickers featuring a heart, a star, hummingbird, the Black Lives Matter banner, a basketball, an afro comb, a car, mismatched socks, bicycle wheel flowers, and a Philadelphia pennant. Text reads “They wait there in the darkness / a knot of electric emotion / seething, sizzling, burning / until I find the strength to reach inside…]

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.

Say Her Name (Ages 12+)

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.

Find Your Voice workbook (teens+)

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

Max Loves Muñecas (ages 7-10)

Dragons In A Bag (Ages 8-12)

The Dragon Thief (Ages 8-12)

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.

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1 observation

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Jan Lightfoot June 8, 2020 - 4:11 PM

I want to reach educators, and students that Thourgh -out the USA many corporate landlords bash the law by demanding renters have 2 to 3 times the rent costs, in their pockets. This is against a current + valid 1968 and 1988 federal Civil Rights law, called the Fair Housing act. It allows discrimination against Black,Brown, Native – Indians, and Muslims. As well as the poor of cash, or people who are not decently paid. Landlords have been use to say to Officials ” I am not discriminating, because they are disabled, have kids under 16,” ( I am
discriminating) because “they lack the mandatory amount a tenant must make.” The Fair Housing Act says, a Landlord can only ask the amount of the rent be made by the renter.

But a landlord owning say a mere, 75 rents, is so powerful, they can make up their own rules,and laws. And not just renters believe them, but – even the official may believe their unlawful claims. Amounting to renters need to make $14.50 to $22.00 an hour not $7.25, and hour what the government says iS a fair or minimum amount to be earned by any worker. Landlords are Not allowed to charge more than the rent, in any form. They can do so for luxury apts. But not for ordinary apts. These are expected to be paid for by gov. minimum wages, workers/ renters.

This could be useful to parents trying to rent a new apartment, and only making the rent- if that much. This information, could save a child’s life, by preventing the family from becoming homeless, or unhoused.

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