During the “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: Conducting a Diversity Audit” education session at the seventh annual Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh, bookseller attendees learned how to assess the inclusiveness of their inventory by conducting a diversity audit. Booksellers can watch a full video of the session on ABA’s Education Resources page (a BookWeb username and password are required; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for login credentials).
At the Friday, June 28, session, attendees heard from guest speakers BrocheAroe Fabian of River Dog Book Company in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, who moderated the session; Dr. Belinda Boon of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio; Molly Gilroy Olivo of Barstons Child’s Play in Washington, D.C.; and Clarissa Hadge of Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts.
The panelists began by explaining why conducting a diversity audit is an essential practice for booksellers. In 2018, Fabian shared, a report by the U.S. Census Bureau wrote that by 2044, “whites are expected to fall below 50 percent of the U.S. population in terms of its racial makeup...By the year 2021, the age group population under 20 will become minority white. And for the first time in American history, more minority race babies, as we define race now in terms of minority versus majority, were born than white babies in a single year.”
“I’m sure we’ve all heard people in the industry, publishing and bookselling-side, say, well, those books — meaning books about people with different aspects of diversity — don’t sell in my community or they don’t represent my community or no one buys them,” said Fabian. “I’m not really sure what they mean by that. Do they mean people of color or people with aspects of diversity don’t exist? Or that we don’t want to read books with [those things] in them? Because the truth is that our world and our country is becoming increasingly multicultural and increasingly multiracial, so we need the books that reflect that, both to understand other people’s experiences and create empathy but to also see that reflected on our shelves.”
The definition of the word “diverse” that the panelists worked with, Fabian noted, was the following: Psychological, physical, and social differences that occur among any and all individuals, including, but not limited to, race, color, ethnicity, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, veteran status, education, marital status, language, age, gender, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, genetic information, and learning styles. A diverse group, community, or organization is one in which a variety of social and cultural characteristics exist.
A disability includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (which may also include addiction). This also includes a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.
Hadge shared with session attendees the concept of “windows and mirrors,” popularized by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, which states that children’s books should contain diverse characters and experiences such that all children can find representations of their own experiences and identities (mirrors) and be exposed to many experiences and identities of people unlike themselves (windows).
The concept was first discussed in Hadge’s local chapter of the New England Independent Booksellers Association about four years ago, she said, when the association was looking to curate a list of diverse and inclusive titles.
What started as the recommendation of a singular title has since expanded into a list of 12 titles presented each year at their fall conference, she added, and they are chosen by a committee that Hadge co-chairs with bookseller Alice Ahn of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire. Availability for the committee is opened each year, Hadge added, to ensure that different people are choosing the titles, which allows for as much representation as possible. The committee selects titles from a pool of submissions that meet a certain set of qualifications and are suggested by publishers and independent booksellers.
“We look for diverse and inclusive titles that may be overlooked and could use uplifting from the indie bookstore community. Accurate, well-written representation of marginalized identities are what we want,” Hadge said. “The titles range from picture book to YA. We focus specifically on titles that are published within the calendar year, so sometimes we have debuts, sometimes we have titles that are coming out in paperback for the first time, and occasionally some of the titles overlap with other lists like Indies Introduce.”
Additionally, the committee takes steps to ensure that the representation for each title is solid, Hadge said. Each title must have the support of at least two committee members, the books on the list may not be from the same publisher or creator, and there must be a variety of representation on the list.
The committee has created an Edelweiss collection so booksellers can access the list, and the list is available both in print and digitally for members of NEIBA.
“Ultimately,” Hadge said, “we do this to raise awareness of diverse and inclusive titles for indie booksellers. We want them to have a list of books that they can hand-sell to customers.”
Boon shared another definition of diversity with attendees, credited to Karen Jensen, MLS. “When we say diverse, we mean variety,” she said. “This means experiences, point of view from the author’s perspective, and the characters represented in the books.”
There’s also the term “own voices,” Boon added, which is an author from a marginalized or underrepresented group writing about their own experiences. The We Need Diverse Books movement defines diversity a bit more narrowly, she said, and has established several different categories, including people of color, Native American, LGBT, people with disabilities, and those belonging to a marginalized religious or cultural group in the U.S. Libraries, she added, will often expand this definition to include backgrounds in socioeconomic diversity or age diversity.
“What I want you all to think about is holistic collection building,” Boon said. “In other words, ‘diverse books’ is not a category like hobbies, auto repair, or self-help. What we are talking about here is including a variety of perspectives throughout all the different categories in our collections, and focusing on the quality of the literature, its artistic and literary merit.”
To take the “windows and mirrors” concept a bit further, she said, consider that the reader brings their own feelings, experiences, and perceptions to the book, whether the characters relate to them (mirror) or offer a new perspective (window). “We know that this also helps create empathy,” Boon said. “You cannot force-feed enlightenment, but you can create an atmosphere that allows empathy to occur.”
Developing an empathetic response is a critical aspect of a child’s development, Boon said, as well as their moral and cognitive development, and literature helps them relate to both fictional and real-life situations.
Boon also said that in her research she found that “when children feel and experience love and empathy for a character in a book, they are prepared to love and experience empathy for real people. We know that the brain cannot distinguish between vicarious experience and something you’ve actually experienced if there is an emotional connection, and that’s what we’re striving to create with empathy.”
These elements have informed her idea of radical collection building, Boon added, which means that “we can no longer sit on the sidelines and simply make a collection available.”
Said Boon, “We’ve got to recognize that selection is a type of privilege. We are still gatekeepers. We are still the ones presenting the collection for people to take advantage of. Just like in libraries, if people walk into bookstores and they see something there, they think it has our stamp of approval, that these are ‘good’ books. It’s our responsibility to recognize our own biases and our own predilections in what we’re selecting.”
In terms of selection, for decades the library world latched on to the message that they offer something for everyone, Boon noted. “But there’s been a very strong movement over the last several years for us to step out of that neutral role and instead of simply advocating for diversity, to take an active part through intentional collection development in creating social justice, in creating that kind of society that we want to see,” she said.
Boon also offered several different resources to help booksellers find inclusive titles, which included the Walter Dean Myers Awards, the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Coretta Scott King Awards, the American Indian Youth Literature Award, and the Pura Belpré Award, among others.
Olivo detailed for attendees the ideal steps for conducting a diversity audit, as follows:
- Identify community questions/needs that you don’t have quick answers to. Examples include: stories about tweenagers with autism spectrum disorder, gender identity for young kids, animal picture books with female main characters, books that feature characters in wheelchairs that are not specifically about the wheelchair.
- Create a spreadsheet to put all of the info in. Include title/author/any diversity categories that you think are relevant (include more than you think you need to; adding more categories later will make you second guess the earlier parts of the audit).
- Pick a small/manageable section to start with, such as picture books, board books, or graphic novels.
- Physically go through the section. Pick up the books, flip through, read them if you don’t remember them well. Then add any relevant diversity points to your spreadsheet (such as check marks under headings).
- Talk to your reps; they can be especially helpful with identifying “own voices” titles. Their Edelweiss markups will often have helpful tags.
- Look at your displays in that area and make sure that your display has at least 50 percent diverse titles.
- Repeat steps three through six until you have audited your whole collection.
Olivo said that an important takeaway is to keep employees informed about diversity and inclusion. “We have a hard and fast rule that when you’re recommending books, you recommend three and at least one of that, at minimum, has to be a diverse title,” she said. “Every time you’re showing someone books, there’s always a diverse book in their pile, every single time. They can choose whether or not they buy it, but you definitely have given it to them.”