Mister Cellophane

A Good Long WayI recent­ly read a blog post by author René Sal­daña, Jr., that got me wondering—and not for the first time—how much effort teach­ers and librar­i­ans, espe­cial­ly, go to when search­ing for books by authors of col­or. It is a ques­tion worth asking.

The oth­er day, out of curios­i­ty, I Googled myself. I found a whop­ping 1, 470,000 results list­ed under my name. These include bios, videos, inter­views, peri­od­i­cal fea­tures, pho­tos, and, of course, books and audio-books. Wow. And yet, I reg­u­lar­ly meet teach­ers and librar­i­ans who are whol­ly unfa­mil­iar with my work. How is that possible?

Talkin' About BessieNow, I’m not say­ing my work is the great­est thing since sliced bread, because there are writ­ers out there whose word­smithing I envy. What I’m say­ing is that my titles are not exact­ly in hid­ing. In fact, through­out the course of my career, I have worked dili­gent­ly to make sure they’re not. From seek­ing out book­store sign­ings, in my ear­ly days; to doing school vis­its; to pro­duc­ing post­cards and book­marks; to cre­at­ing a com­pre­hen­sive web­site; to invest­ing in teacher guides for my books; to devel­op­ing an online pres­ence via Face­book, and now Twit­ter—in these ways, and more, I have made a con­cert­ed effort to put my work out there. How is it, then, that many peo­ple still man­age to miss it?

Pocketful of PoemsBefore I go any fur­ther, let me say that I am extreme­ly grate­ful for those teach­ers and librar­i­ans who have sought out and found my work, over the years, and then went on to share it with the stu­dents they serve. Obvi­ous­ly, I would­n’t have much of a career with­out these lit­er­a­ture-lov­ing pro­fes­sion­als. They have kept a good­ly per­cent­age of my 46 trade, and 20-odd mass-mar­ket books in print. I’m hop­ing they receive to my next two titles with equal kind­ness. How­ev­er, after 30+ years in the busi­ness, I still rou­tine­ly hear peo­ple say, “I’ve looked for your work every­where and can’t find it,” to which I respond, “Huh?”

Almost ZeroI have a web­site fea­tur­ing all of my titles, awards, audio-clips, and select reviews, with post­ed links to IndieBound.org and Amazon.com. In addi­tion, I have a Wikipedia page, as well as an Amazon.com page. How hard have you been look­ing, exact­ly? I’m confused.

Sylvia Vardel­l’s must-view Poet­ry for Chil­dren web­site lists many of my poet­ry titles. TeachingBooks.net fea­tures my Coret­ta Scott King Award and Hon­or win­ners (six in total). I, thank­ful­ly, have books on any num­ber of Best Book lists. Tell me again how hard it is to find my work.

Bronx MasqueradeClear­ly, there’s more to the lack of diver­si­ty in chil­dren’s books than whether or not POC are cre­at­ing and pub­lish­ing them. Could it be that some lack the moti­va­tion to seek out the books that are already there? That’s what René Sal­daña, Jr., is ask­ing. Now, I am, too.

Mind you, I’m not say­ing that we don’t need more books by peo­ple of col­or, because we most cer­tain­ly do. The num­bers show that we are woe­ful­ly off the mark in pro­duc­ing diverse books in num­bers com­men­su­rate with the pro­por­tion of our ever-increas­ing­ly diverse pop­u­la­tion. But that said, I am sug­gest­ing that we, per­haps, look at the issue a lit­tle more close­ly, that we ask a few more uncom­fort­able, but nec­es­sary, questions.

René Sal­daña, Jr., spoke to this issue from the point of view of an author with a lit­tle less vis­i­bil­i­ty than mine. And yet I have to agree with so much of what he has to say.

The jug­ger­naut that is #WeNeed­Di­verse­Books is hard at work to raise the vis­i­bil­i­ty of books by, and for, peo­ple of col­or. This is great and impor­tant work. Still, I can’t help but won­der if there’s more going on beneath the sur­face that would explain why the gate­keep­ers in this busi­ness con­tin­ue to miss the POC books—including Coret­ta Scott King, Pura Bel­pré, New­bery, Calde­cott, Printz, and Nation­al Book Award Winners—that are already out in the marketplace.

Where, exact­ly, is the dis­con­nect? Is it the want-to that’s miss­ing? If so, how do we begin to address it?

Let’s talk.

8 Responses

  1. For some, it is igno­rance, They might know about your work but are igno­rant of its rel­e­vance to the lives of their students.

    For some it is racism. They might know of your work but think reading/assigning it is a bow to “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” and so choose to ignore it, and they don’t think they’re racist. That stance is, I think, racist.

  2. As for what to do… I’m at a dis­mal state of mind in that regard. 

    Teach­ing and librar­i­an­ship are low status/low pay. It is kind of like the vol­un­teer intern­ships in many fields, includ­ing in DC with Con­gress. The only peo­ple that can do low pay/volunteer work are those who can afford to, which means the wealthy, which (most­ly) means peo­ple who don’t know the expe­ri­ences of low income/people of color/Native peo­ple… From that space of igno­rance and priv­i­lege, can they real­ly help? Do they real­ly under­stand the need for this lit­er­a­ture? Do they give it a super­fi­cial nod but not ‘own’ its import?

  3. Deb­bie, I real­ly have to dis­agree with your char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of teach­ers and librar­i­ans as “those who can afford to” and “wealthy;” I’m in a library sci­ence pro­gram myself, and have friends who either teach or are in teach­ing cer­tifi­cate pro­grams, and the vast major­i­ty of the stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­als I know are low­er to mid­dle income and come from a diverse spec­trum of racial back­grounds. They under­stand that teach­ing and librar­i­an­ship is high stress/low pay work; most are doing it because they thinks it’s impor­tant work; some do it because, low-pay aside, both are jobs with high job secu­ri­ty and good ben­e­fits, which is impor­tant to some­one expe­ri­enc­ing finan­cial inse­cu­ri­ty. I don’t know any­one who qual­i­fies as “wealthy,” or who isn’t mak­ing some sort of finan­cial sac­ri­fice in order to attend school.

    That said, while my cur­rent cer­tifi­cate pro­gram has diverse stu­dents and fac­ul­ty, the Mas­ter’s pro­gram I attend­ed for a short time was major­i­ty white. This is the prob­lem. Cer­tifi­cate pro­grams are diverse, but there’s a clear glass ceil­ing when it comes to grad­u­ate school atten­dance. Depend­ing on state laws and job require­ments, this may mean that teach­ing and librar­i­an jobs in schools are closed off to any­one with­out a Mas­ter’s, cre­at­ing a pro­fes­sion­al pop­u­la­tion of mid­dle-income whites for whom diver­si­ty in read­ing mate­ri­als, while nice, does­n’t per­haps make their list of impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tions when mak­ing a read­ing list.

    I think that’s sub­ject to change, though; in my class on chil­dren’s and young adult mate­r­i­al, #weneed­di­verse­books was a def­i­nite top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion, and we talked about how impor­tant it was from a col­lec­tions man­age­ment point of view to have diverse shelves so that our stu­dents and patrons can see them­selves rep­re­sent­ed in what we offer them to read.

    It’s mak­ing the con­nec­tion between “diver­si­ty is impor­tant” to “putting diverse books in chil­dren’s hands is impor­tant” that is the real issue here. Hav­ing a diverse col­lec­tion is use­less if you’re not active­ly pro­mot­ing it to stu­dents and patrons. This is where I think white teach­ers and librar­i­ans fal­ter. They don’t make the effort to ensure that not only are the mate­ri­als avail­able to kids, but that the mate­ri­als are actu­al­ly seen by and rec­om­mend­ed to kids.

    I think there’s a vari­ety of rea­sons for this: some don’t want to be seen as pro­mot­ing an agen­da, or wor­ry that pitch­ing (for exam­ple) Black books to Black kids will make them appear racist (and yes, this is an argu­ment against pro­mot­ing diverse books I have heard before). Most just don’t under­stand, as peo­ple who have the priv­i­lege of see­ing them­selves so well rep­re­sent­ed in lit­er­a­ture, how rare it for minori­ties to be exposed to books that rep­re­sent them — and thus how impor­tant it is to encour­age that dis­cov­ery. They rec­og­nize POINTE and EL DEAFO and THE GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE (to use titles that have come out this year) as great, diverse books, but they don’t under­stand what those books mean to a young Black woman or a dis­abled stu­dent or a queer teen strug­gling with their sexuality. 

    I don’t real­ly know what we can do about this oth­er than con­tin­ue to raise aware­ness about diverse books, and encour­age both teach­ing and library train­ing and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams to dis­cuss the impor­tance of mak­ing sure that the read­ing mate­r­i­al they offer and use in their pro­gram­ming reflects the diver­si­ty of their stu­dents. I know that’s not a sil­ver bul­let solu­tion, but I don’t think there real­ly is one to this prob­lem — just edu­ca­tion. We con­tin­ue to have these dis­cus­sions online and off; we con­tin­ue to bring these dis­cus­sions into the class­room, into the library. We make sure these dis­cus­sions are cov­ered by the media (has the School Library Jour­nal done any­thing to pro­mote diver­si­ty? Has Kirkus? Trade pub­li­ca­tions are excel­lent plat­forms for mak­ing librar­i­ans and teach­ers aware of books that might oth­er­wise escape their notice). 

    The key is to make sure that this issue gets con­tin­u­al cov­er­age, and does­n’t just become sub­sumed by oth­er library and pub­lish­ing problems.

  4. Nik­ki: Your piece caused me to read the lyrics to “Mr. Cel­lo­phane,” and yup, there it is: Seen but not seen, there but not there (or not rec­og­nized). I believe the prob­lem stems from sev­er­al places and most of them have to do with a false sense of hav­ing arrived: at a place of under­stand­ing of oth­er, at a place of open-mind­ed­ness, at a place of accep­tance of oth­er. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I think we (myself includ­ed) think we have achieved that place of King’s DREAM because we are not the same as those from that time; because we have evolved; we are more enlight­ened. And yet, we’re not. I think until we admit that we do show pref­er­ence, that is a bias for, which by default means a prej­u­dice against (sure, we don’t keep Black kids from going to all-White schools, nor is the sim­ple act of sit­ting at the counter of a Wool­worths jar­ring to us, but there are safer ways to show both) we won’t move for­ward. We’ll remain stag­nant, which in my mind, is just as bad as any­thing overt. Thanks for read­ing my piece. It means a great deal.

  5. Nik­ki, I just read a librar­i­an’s blog post recent­ly which said that most of the authors whose work they are famil­iar with or that they come to know are the ones being sent on book tours or pro­mot­ed heav­i­ly by pub­lish­ers. These authors vis­it schools and libraries at no charge to the school or library. Might this be relat­ed to the skew between the names that teach­ers and librar­i­ans rec­og­nize eas­i­ly and ones they don’t? 

    I’m guess­ing that most teach­ers and librar­i­ans are super-busy (over­worked and under­paid) and they might be get­ting most info from the cat­a­logs sent to them as well as oth­er mar­ket­ing push/buzz.

    The post is here: http://groggorg.blogspot.com/2014/09/fee-vs-free-authorillustrator-visits.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+GroupBlog+%28Group+Blog%29

  6. Thanks for this mus­ing… I’ve fol­lowed the spring sum­mer discussion…

    Here are my thoughts…Off the top of my head, so per­haps still in need of some word­smithing… As you know, my world is that of the K‑12 world… which I think mat­ters cause, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, every kids should pass through this “sys­tem.” Thus, a great place to ask these ques­tions… and muse on ideas…

    1. Racism. At the end of the day, race and racism still exist. This is my larg­er frame, what we aca­d­e­mics call a “crti­ical race the­o­ry” approach. How this trans­lates into “sales” and “mar­ket­ing” at the com­mer­cial lev­el is that books with cov­ers with “folks of col­or” are not rep­re­sent­ed as well. Thus, while librar­i­ans might know of the var­i­ous ALA awards of qual­i­ty books by and about folks of col­or, there is not an equal inter­est beyond that. This goes for teach­ers as well (my neigh­bor­hood). So, while us folks of col­or might care, sad­ly, there is not a uni­form inter­est across the board. This is NOT to say folks are Racists with a Cap­i­tal R. Rather, it is to say that too many folks do not see a rea­son to read about the lives of folks of col­or. There is not a an inter­est in folks to believe that we are, or should be, an inter­con­nect­ed peo­ples. That the lives of young black men (Michael Brown) is not just a “black folks” issue. It is a nation­al issue. It is an issue of jus­tice. It is an issue of com­pas­sion. It is an STORY of … (this point, as with oth­ers below, could be made about immi­gra­tion, gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, etc.).

    2. Qual­i­ty. Even over the sum­mer mus­ings by folks there is still a gener­ic just give me “qual­i­ty” piece of lit­er­a­ture (a good sto­ry) argu­ment, and the racial make up of the char­ac­ters should be sec­ondary, that is made (by authors–prominently a white male–in the busi­ness). As if you all (writ­ers of col­or) can only do “weak” char­ac­ter sketch­es. Rather than see­ing, Bronx, for instance, as a damn good book that ALSO wres­tles with a vari­ety of ‑isms (racism includ­ed), it is seen just as a black folks book (by the cover).

    3. Fear. Too many folks real­ly don’t want to talk, thought­ful­ly, about racism or oth­er “dif­fi­cult” issues. So, teen preg­nan­cy, racism, LGBTQ iden­ti­ties, fos­ter care, etc. means that a whole slice of books, most often with char­ac­ters of col­or, writ­ten by folks of col­or, don’t get read and dis­cussed. So, Bronx might be read, cause there is racial diver­si­ty. But, a book with ONLY black folks… “does­n’t have enough appeal.” Sim­i­lar­ly, the “I don’t want to offend” or “sound racist” pre­empts folks from hav­ing the courage to jump into the thick of things.

    4. Tokenism. Even over the spring/summer dia­logue (one which I think is great!) there is still a will­ing­ness to tok­enize folks of col­or. An unin­ten­tion­al form of racism. So, books with char­ac­ters of col­or are “praised.” But there is not always a thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the sto­ry. So, yes, there may be a char­ac­ter who is black, and immi­grant, a young girl, etc. But the larg­er issues of how that char­ac­ter’s race, sta­tus, gen­der, etc. IMPACT the sto­ry­line is often min­i­mal. So, Devon was BLACK, but his black­ness mat­ters. And you, amaz­ing­ly, weave a mean­ing­ful sto­ry into that reality.

    5. Non-read­ing. When I teach Bronx (or some­thing by Rita Williams Gar­cia, Jacque­line Wood­son, Guadalupe McCall, An Na, etc.) there is often a lim­it­ed under­stand­ing of the lives of the folks of col­or in the books. So, for me, it is not just that there is a “short­age” of books by folks of col­or about and for kids of col­or (as well as for white folks), but rather, that many folks (again, my neigh­bor­hood is teach­ers, the major­i­ty of whom are white females) don’t know how to read Bronx (Road to Par­adise, Loco­mo­tion, PS 11, Under the Mesquite, A Step from Heav­en). A lack of under­stand­ing about race/racism, cul­ture, urban life, etc. means that good books are not ful­ly read. (so, my beef with this entire dia­logue is not that NUMBERS should be our pri­ma­ry con­cern, but rather, are we learn­ing how to thought­ful­ly read… Yes, we need Louise Rosen­blat­t’s clas­sic on read­ing lit­er­a­ture. And us edu­ca­tors should teach that! But we also need to teach the soci­ol­o­gy of being a per­son of col­or and of white­ness. So, for instance, I teach Jacque­line Wood­son’s If You Come Soft­ly. And folks miss the nuances of white­ness in the book, but “see” (at least super­fi­cial­ly) the racism towards the black character. 

    6. Bad Edu­ca­tion. One of the things I see all the time is that my teach­ers to be (and those in the field) will go on line and look at the teacher’s guides (like to Bronx). Rather than a thought­ful dis­cus­sion of the book, there is a quick move­ment to “what is your issue.” But, cause the book was “under-read,” the class dis­cus­sion and per­son­al writ­ings are often “under-devel­oped.” Then, there is a snow­ball effect in which there is lit­tle thought­ful­ness of com­plex­i­ties of being a per­son of col­or in society.

    7. Barak Oba­ma. Eric Hold­er. Michael Brown. M.L. King, Jr. As a nation, again, for me, in our K‑12 schools, we miss the chances to talk thought­ful­ly about racism. Almost ALL of my teach­ers to be have not lis­tened to Oba­ma’s speech on racism. Have not lis­tened to Hold­er’s speech on racism. Have already moved on from the death of Michael Brown. And all LOVE King, but won’t read his speech­es on racism (or only see his words as his­tor­i­cal mark­ers of the KKK in the 60s).

    So, yes, we need to talk… but if num­bers are the issues… we might have a great con­ver­sa­tion, but miss the deep­er “threats” to rais­ing a nation of “read­ers.”

    With much LOVE and hel­la RESPECT for you as a WOMAN of COLOR who WRITES BEAUTIFUL stuff!


  7. Nik­ki, I am an ele­men­tary com­put­er lab teacher in an at-risk school, with a love of chil­dren’s books. Stu­dents bor­row books from me on a reg­u­lar basis, and I make sure there are books for all races, cul­tures, inter­ests, and read­ing lev­els on the shelves. From the sing-song of Dan­i­tra Brown, to the spunky Dia­monde Daniel, your books stand strong on my shelves with Christo­pher Paul Cur­tis, Jacque­line Wood­son, Mil­dred D. Tay­lor, and more. Thank you for shar­ing them with us!

  8. I’m already a fan read­ing some writ­ings you post­ed about racists acts this year. I enjoyed your art espe­cial­ly the bright col­ors you use.

    I agree too lit­tle dia­logue about empa­thy and racisim. We well men­tal­i­ty adults need to find ways to con­front the racisim and plant seeds of car­ing for each other.

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