It seems every 3-5 years, someone in the press discovers the statistics the CCBC keeps on multicultural literature, and publishes an article about it. This first happened back in 1989 when USA Today did a story on how difficult it was for African-American parents to find books for their children with characters who looked like them. It was accompanied by a nifty little graph that showed the first four years of our statistics, numbers we started documenting in 1985.
USA Today, 1989
This year on March 15 there were two terrific op ed pieces in the New York Times, one by Walter Dean Myers and one by his son, Christopher Myers, about the sad state of African-American children's literature, and the CCBC stats were again quoted. This has led to a whole new cycle of reporting. Even Entertainment Weekly did a two-page spread called Kid's Lit Primary Color: White. Their accompanying graphic even looks a bit like the original 1989 illustration from USA Today. Not surprising since the story is essentially the same one.
Entertainment Weekly, 2014
These stories always generate a lot of passionate discussion for a month or so. Then things die down and nothing changes. New books flow into the CCBC every day, and we continue to count and document the books by and about people of color. The numbers have stagnated for the past couple of decades -- we update the statistics on our web site every year. Many people know to look for them there. Others will stumble across them for the very first time and, in a few years, there will be another story. Maybe next time, it will be a different one.
In February's discussion of If I Ever Get Out of Here on CCBC-Net, we also heard from his editor, Cheryl Klein, at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. We are reprinting it here with her permission.
As the editor of
Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of
Here, I’m delighted to see the conversation going on here about it! If you
don’t mind, I wanted to share a little bit about how the book came to be, since
it ties to some of the questions we were discussing earlier in the month
regarding diverse literature.
I’ve long been
interested in publishing diverse stories, and thanks to my position at Arthur
A. Levine Books/Scholastic, I’ve been in a place to do so. But in my first
eight years in the industry, I did not see any submissions at all from Native
American authors. After a debate about multicultural literature over on the
child_lit listserv in, I think, 2008, I decided to reach out to Debbie Reese
about this. I told her that the #1 problem in publishing Native American books
was actually getting manuscripts from Native writers, and asked her to pass
along my contact info to any aspiring Native children’s or YA authors she might
Debbie sent me
several writers over the next few years, and one of them was Eric Gansworth.
Eric had published several adult novels and collections, but he’d never written
for YA before; and his writing instantly stood out to me for his emotional
sensitivity, his backbeat sense of humor, and his powerful portrayal of
relationships among families and friends on and off the reservation. The first
thing he sent me was a short-story collection featuring a young man’s
observations of the adult relationships around his reservation. I admired the
stories, but it seemed more like a book about adults from a YA point of view
than true YA fiction to me, so it didn’t feel right for my list. But I told
Eric that if he’d be interested in writing something that was truly focused on
teenagers, I’d be delighted to see it; and he responded with a proposal for a
novel that had long been in the back of his mind, about friendship, the
Beatles, and the great Buffalo blizzard of 1977.
I said “I love this idea, write it,” he did so, and I acquired the novel. We
then worked together to shape it into If I
Ever Get Out of Here.
So if I could
point you lovely librarians and teachers to one thing in this story, it would
be the crucial role that Debbie played in letting Native writers know there was
someone looking for their work, and her work connecting those writers to the
wider publishing world. If you work with a diverse population and you know some
aspiring writers, please give them books that might inform or encourage their
writing, like those we’ve been discussing all month. If they’re adults, tell
them about the Angela Johnson scholarship at the Vermont College of Fine Arts,
and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, where they might
find support for honing their craft. Point them to this discussion, and the CBCDiversity Tumblr, and the Lee & Low Book Awards, for names of publishers
and editors and readers interested in seeing their work. Remind them it often
takes patience to find the right editor for the right project at the right
time, and they shouldn’t be discouraged by one rejection (as I turned down
Eric’s first submission); but to hang in there and keep writing, first and
foremost. Be the connector and encourager for any talented writers of color you
might know, and hopefully we can see more of them in print soon.
The third and final part of our conversation with author Eric Gansworth from CCBC-Net.
Writing for Teens
Did you find it
restrictive to orient the novel towards a YA audience?
Bison Books, 2005
probably went a fair amount softer than I would have for an adult audience, but
that’s to be expected. Most of the edgier things that I thought were important
to understanding Lewis’s world are still in the novel, if maybe a little more
veiled than they were in the first incarnation. We had discussions about some
of these areas, in the editorial process. Though a few of these passages, even
in their muted versions, may alienate adult folks who feel protectively
censorious on their constituents’ behalf, we left in the elements that were
important. It’s a book about teenage guys. Even sensitive teenage guys are
still, well, teenage guys.
neuter them, worrying about offending someone, would not have been a realistic
representation of the world I wanted to present. Young readers know when you’re
playing it safe and I didn’t want that to be the case. It’s strange to me how
the culture has changed. In many ways, being more sensitive is a great thing,
but young people who want to read provocative, edgier material are going to
find it. Why not offer them some range of choices? I hope I’m not the literary
equivalent of broccoli, but you never know. This book is oriented to late
middle school and high school students. In middle school, I had already read
Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot
and John Russo’s Night of the Living Dead
(one great novel, one workmanlike novelization). Most of the girls I knew in
eighth grade were obsessed with Flowers
in the Attic, an over-the-top contemporary Gothic novel with a primary
narrative focusing on incestuous siblings locked in an attic by their
dysfunctional family. It seemed like Hansel
and Gretel: The Cinemax Late Nite Years.
Milkweed Press, 2010
one real restriction I think was great for me, as a writer. I’m generally a
very meditative fiction writer, perhaps even to the point of indulgence
sometimes. I’m interested in the interior lives of characters, the ways their
memories and histories inform who they are at any given moment. My
understanding of YA, from discussions with others and from reading many many
contemporary YA novels while writing, is that it’s got to move a bit faster
than I normally choose to. I’m sure that has more to do with my own temperament
than any issue with the field. I’m a contemplative person, the sort who still
gets insomnia over conversations I had 10 or 15 years ago that didn’t go the
way I’d hoped. As such, my novels for adults probably require a reader with a
greater reservoir of patience than the average reader. If I wanted slower
meditative passages to remain in this novel, I had to find legitimate reasons
for them to exist. I learned so much about writing for an audience in search of
more immediate payoffs, that I believe right now, I could probably trim another
thirty pages out of the first half, and make the pace a little peppier. It’s a
learning curve, like anything else.
so much for taking the time to engage with my work and again for inviting me to
participate in the conversation.