Equity & Diversity

Authors Use Awards to Advocate for Diversity in Children’s Books

By Guest Blogger — March 30, 2016 4 min read
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Guest post by Education Week library intern Rachel Edelstein.

Last month, we wrote about the glaring diversity gap in the children’s publishing industry. What we didn’t write about were some of the recent award-winning authors in this field who are using their platforms as well as their words to push for equal representation in youth literature.

First, let’s review the numbers. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that for the first time in the country’s history, more than 50 percent of U.S. children younger than age 5 were nonwhite minorities. The publishing industry does not reflect this demographic shift. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), of 3,400 youth books published in 2015, only 501 included significant content or themes about people of color. Although U.S. demographics are changing, the majority of children’s and young adult literature published today still predominately features white characters, suggested CCBC director Kathleen T. Horning on the center’s blog.

As some publishers begin to take steps to diversify their staffs and children’s books offerings, many children’s and YA authors continue to voice their concerns about the diversity gap in children’s publishing. In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, children’s book author Walter Dean Myers reminded readers that literature transmits values and that the messages of oppression and misrepresentation in current children’s books are appalling. Books for young people represent a unique space in publishing, Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park asserted in her 2015 TEDx Talk. “If books have the power to help us find ourselves,” she said, “then a children’s book has superpowers.”

As such, children of color may be hindered in developing self-esteem and self-love because their identities are absent in the books they read, wrote author Christopher Myers in the New York Times. Children’s literature, wrote former educator Alvin Irby in a recent Education Week Commentary, “represents one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the fight against bigotry and racism in American culture.”

The following children’s book authors are recent award-winners who continue to push for equal representation in literature and more opportunities for diversity of authorship:

  • Matt de la Peña became the first Latino male Newberry Medal winner in January for his picture book Last Stop on Market Street. The book also won a 2016 Caldecott Honor and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. In his official AP statement, de la Peña said that he is “most excited to share my passion for writing diverse, working-class characters to a broader audience.” De la Peña frequently visits high-poverty schools and told Publisher’s Weekly he hopes to show kids “that they are worthy of being the hero in my books.”
  • Gene Luen Yang, author of the graphic novel Chinese Born American, was inaugurated in January as the fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His commitment to diversity comes across in his ambassadorship platform Reading Without Walls—a movement encouraging young readers to move outside of their literary comfort zones. In his platform statement, Yang urges students to “read a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you,” affirming that “by reading other people’s stories, we can develop insight and compassion.” During the course of his ambassadorship, one of Yang’s goals is “to get kids reading more diversely, in every sense of the word ‘diverse.’” (As a graphic novelist, Yang faces down another diversity publishing gap in the comic book world.)
  • Ashley Hope Pérez received a Printz Honor Award at the 2016 ALA Youth Media Awards for her YA historical fiction novel Out of Darkness, which explores racial divisions and interracial relationships within the landscape of the 1937 East Texas school explosion. Pérez hopes the win will spur more conversations about Latina writing. On her blog, Pérez writes: “I want this, and other stories from the margins of history and of mainstream US culture, to weigh on the hearts of readers of all backgrounds.”
  • The Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature for their YA novel All American Boys, which explores police brutality and racial injustice. The award—bestowed by the growing grassroots nonprofit We Need Diverse Books—serves to honor authors “whose work featured a diverse main character or addressed diversity in a meaningful way.” At the official award ceremony at the Library of Congress in March, Forbes Magazine reported that Kiely implored the publishing industry in his acceptance speech “to make change happen from within and not be bystanders.”

Want more on diverse literature and award-winners? Check out the South Asia Book Award, Disability in Kidlit, Vamos a Leer, and SLJ’s Cultural Diversity Booklist. See our Q&A with Zareen Jaffrey, executive editor of Salaam Reads (a Simon & Schuster imprint that will publish children’s and YA books featuring Muslim characters), for more about diversity initiatives in the publishing world.

Join the conversation: Which authors of color have you been reading? What are your favorite children’s and young adult books with diverse characters? What are your ideas for increasing diversity in youth publishing? Let us know in the comments section below or tweet us @EWBookMarks.

“A More Diverse Nation” Chart: U.S. Census Bureau

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.