Booksellers Welcome Campaign to Promote Diverse Books

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The lack of diversity in children’s books, a long-standing concern for many independent booksellers, has gained prominence in recent months with the launch by a group of writers and teachers of the grassroots campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks; growing media coverage, including two New York Times op-ed pieces and stories by CNN and EW; and a panel discussion at BookCon.

The call for an increase in the number of children’s literature titles that feature diverse, non-majority narratives is not a new one for booksellers. In April, as part of ABA’s Children’s Institute, many attending children’s booksellers took part in a roundtable discussion on the topic, where they shared favorite titles, where to get them, and ways to incorporate them in their store and community.

Elizabeth Bluemle, co-owner of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont, has been a strong advocate for diversity in kids’ books for years. She has promoted the cause through her posts for Publishers Weekly’s ShelfTalker blog and has created a database of more than 1,000 titles that fit her criteria for diversity: children’s books that feature a main character whose race is not the driving force of the story. Bluemle started creating the database four years ago, and it has been enthusiastically shared throughout the bookselling community.

“I want to get away from the notion that kids of color on book covers mean that the book is intended for a niche audience. A great book is for every kid, regardless of the main character’s race,” said Bluemle. At Flying Pig, “when we ‘booktalk’ to customers, we include books with characters of different ethnic backgrounds just as a matter of course. As long is it is a great book that kids are going to enjoy, they should be exposed to it,” she said.

Bluemle describes her town as “a pretty homogenous community,” which makes it “extra important” for children to have access to diverse titles.

Though Bluemle believes the entire book industry is responsible for increasing the number of diverse titles being read, “Publishers wield an enormous amount of power and influence,” she said. “If they put as much marketing muscle, creativity, and dollars behind these books as they do others, I suspect the sales would reflect that. And there are additional hindrances to getting books published by authors from diverse backgrounds. Publishing itself is such a white field that there can be an unconscious and erroneous assumption of what is ‘authentic’ for someone from another culture.”

Booksellers need to do their part too, said Bluemle, by being aware of books that reflect diversity, reading them, and recommending them. “Everyone bears responsibility,” she said. Promoting such titles as The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (Arthur A. Levine Books) is one way for booksellers to send a message to publishers, said Bluemle, since it’s a great example of a quality title that features diverse characters. “I hope it sells really well and shows publishers that you can put brown faces on the covers of books and see the numbers do beautifully,” she said. 

Bluemle noted that Vermont teachers and librarians are constantly searching for diverse titles and are grateful for help. “I think publishers would be shocked to know how desperate [the education community] is for these books,” she said.

Veronica Santiago Liu opened Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria in 2011 as a temporary pop-up bookstore in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. With the community’s support, the store was able to raise the funds to open in a permanent space and operate on a completely volunteer-run basis.

When it comes to inventory, Word Up listens closely to customer requests. Washington Heights has a large Latino population, as well as a growing African-American population, and the majority of the store’s inventory is comprised of donations. “What comes into this store is quite literally from the neighborhood,” said Santiago Liu. “It’s completely reflective of what people in the area read.”

Word Up hosts many different events and keeps a close eye on the cultures being represented. “We constantly run the numbers to make sure the programs we offer are accurately reflective of our community,” she said. Similarly, the store keeps close track of the titles that are displayed face-out to be sure that they’re constantly offering variety and balance.

Santiago Liu is in a unique position, as she is also an editor for Seven Stories Press. “There’s still so much that can be done,” she said. In terms of dual language books, “I know the challenges that exist,” she said. “There’s an extra cost built in when something needs to be translated.”

Noting that the 40 volunteers at Word Up come from many different backgrounds, Santiago Liu said, “I think it’s important for kids to not just see books that have characters of all skin colors, but to talk to booksellers that look like them — people who like books and the community elements that come with sharing literature.”

There’s also room for more diversity in the people who work in publishing, said Santiago Liu, and that lack of diversity often leads to small disconnects along the way, such as publishers going through a different channel to market Spanish language titles, or distributors overlooking certain populations when it comes to many important seminal texts.

“There are a lot of major connecting points that are missing,” she added. “If there is a publisher doing all it can, and a bookseller doing all they can, there is still an incredible amount of inequality in terms of basic access — and often, unfortunately, along economic and color lines — within our city and country as a whole that has affected the book-making and book-distribution system… It’s a problem bigger than books and bookstores. But [that’s] what makes the foundational work that books and bookstores can do to raise awareness of the lack of diverse children’s books so important.”

Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books in Zionsville, Indiana, said that when it comes to diverse titles, she follows the store’s general philosophy: “Great literature is great literature. And children need to be exposed to all of it,” she said.

Ordering is crucial, said Compton, who has had success in finding diverse titles from smaller publishers, or even adult collections that have a few children’s books. The store also maintains good relationships with local schools, and Compton sends e-mails to teachers asking them for suggested titles that they’d like to see in the store before she orders books. Compton believes that indie booksellers are at a unique advantage in that they can curate and experiment without being bound by corporate decisions. “This has always been a strength of independent bookstores, and it’s definitely fitting for this campaign,” she said.

Zionsville is a mostly white, affluent suburban community, and Compton said she was surprised to hear at her district’s curriculum meeting that the student body represented more than 40 languages spoken at home. Following the meeting, Compton requested a list of those languages. “We’re committed to finding books that represent all of those cultures for each section of the store,” she said.

Another important aspect of promoting diverse titles at 4 Kids is keeping an eye on displays to ensure that titles other than bestsellers are face out. Compton said the store is now mapping its face-outs, and being more deliberate about rotating the titles in each section.
Celebrations are an effective opportunity for bookstores to expose children to a variety of cultures and traditions as well as a way to tie a specific book to an event. This year, 4 Kids Books hosted an extremely well-attended Chinese New Year celebration, and Compton attributes its success to the amount of time staff spent preparing for and promoting the event. “We put it on the calendar early, and it was four times as big as last year’s event,” she said.

In order to reach a more diverse population, 4 Kids is actively reaching out to expand its customer base. This year, the store approached more schools and religious groups to host offsite events, which led to repeat invitations and introductions to other groups, as well as lists of title recommendations.

When it comes to the publishing model, Compton said, “This is a circle, and I resist it being linear. It’s a push-pull situation between writers and readers and everyone in between. The need for quality is a circle, and it’s constant, and it needs to be nurtured in order to grow.”

Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts, responded to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign immediately by posting a sign on its door that told customers how to get involved. “I’m really excited about the recent social media movement,” said Sara Hines, Eight Cousins publicity and programs manager who will soon become the store’s co-owner. “This is something I have felt passionately about for a while.”

Hines noted that conversations in publishing often acknowledge the problem without offering concrete suggestions on how to fix it; however, she said that the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is different in that it provides all of those involved with a distinct mission: reading, curating, and promoting the best books that feature diverse characters, and making them available to customers. “Of course, we can do that,” she said. “As booksellers, we already do that.”

The store has created a display that highlights books that are exactly what people involved in the campaign are asking for: stories that include a diverse cast of characters, but whose story is not focused on diversity.“These books do exist, and it’s important that we shine a spotlight on the great ones,” Hines said, adding that she was also happy to discover that a number of titles featuring diverse characters are in the publishing pipeline.

Hines also said that it’s important to make sure every store display — no matter what topic is being promoted or featured ­­— is inclusive. And it’s equally important to educate staff and collectively share suggestions, so all customers feel welcome and included at all times.

Further, the campaign has given Hines an opportunity to have conversations with the community at large. During teacher appreciation week, Eight Cousins hosted a workshop focusing on how school staff can build a diverse library and integrate diversity into a variety of topics.

“The teachers that came to this were already looking for these books, so we got good feedback,” said Hines. “They left with lists of books they can incorporate in the classroom.”

When planning school events, Eight Cousins is making it a priority to celebrate diversity in the authors and illustrators that participate.

Eight Cousins is among the stores taking part in The Great Greene Heist challenge to see which indie bookstore can sell the most copies of the Varian Johnson title. “We are very excited,” said Hines. “It incorporates a lot of what we’re talking about. It’s a book that is diverse and good — we shouldn’t have to choose between the two.” 

Hines, who has connected to people online through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, has found a number of title recommendations via social media. “It’s always nice to see people who care about same thing you care about,” she said, adding that this year’s BEA was a great place to bring these online conversations face to face with others in the industry. “The energy from the #WeNeedDiversebooks panel at BookCon was palpable,” Hines said, adding that she is “thrilled to see all the initiatives” that the group continues to make. “As a bookseller, I look forward to supporting these efforts in every way that I can.”

Noting that some play “the blame game” and look to publishers to fix the problem, Hines said, “I don’t think it is the publishers; I think it is all of us. Rather than booksellers telling publishers they need to do better, we need to make sure we’re all doing the best we possibly can. We all have a different role in this. I don’t think it helps us move forward if we’re looking for someone else to make a difference.”

See this week’s related story: BookCon Panel Highlights Need For Diverse Books.