Ci7 Education: Talking Productively About Content Issues in Children’s Literature

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The “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: Talking Productively About Content Issues in Children’s Literature” education session, held on Thursday, June 27, at the American Booksellers Association’s seventh annual Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh, offered attendees the chance to participate in an open conversation about content issues in children’s literature and the implications these issues have on the industry as a whole. Booksellers can watch a full video of the session on ABA’s Education Resources page (a BookWeb username and password are required; e-mail [email protected] for login credentials).

Instead of being presented as a traditional panel, this session encouraged all attendees to participate in an honest discussion about issues surfacing in kids’ books regarding content related to race, culture, individuality, and identity. It was inspired by recent accounts of authors self-selecting to delay publication of their books, titles being cancelled by publishers, and review outlets retracting starred statuses.

Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Summer Laurie of Books Inc. in San Francisco, California; Javier Ramirez of The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois; and Sara Grochowski of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan, acted as facilitators for the discussion, with many booksellers taking the mic to make their own contributions and respond to others’ comments.

The conversation about diversity began when Avery Peregrine of Third Place Books in Seward Park, Washington, questioned why most of the discussion facilitators for this session were white. BrocheAroe Fabian of River Dog Book Co. in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, who is on the ABA Committee on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and was present at the session, responded by explaining that she’d asked a similar question when she learned about the panelists for Ci7.

Selecting panelists for educational sessions is a process, Fabian told attendees, noting that panels are often put together by conference participants, and while it’s wonderful to see many new faces, it can make the process of judging experience and expertise difficult. Panels are “put together from people that we know have an experience level or are able to moderate a panel in a certain way to provide a forum for discussion,” she said.

Diversity isn’t just about skin color or ethnicity, she added: “I don’t know that everyone on the panel has a recognized — by looking at someone’s face — level or aspect of diversity. But I would like to say that everyone has their own experience, and for this panel specifically, they’re on the ABC Advisory Council, so they are facilitating the conversation.”

Preceding the session, Grochowski shared guidelines for attendees: stay engaged; speak your truth; experience discomfort (because we all know how emotional and difficult this conversation is no matter who you are); expect and accept non-closure; listen for understanding; no fixing; and take risks.

Ramirez added, “Everyone’s experience here is different. We all come from different communities, different bookstores, different parts of the country, and just to echo what we’re saying here — if we don’t understand what you’re saying, just please explain as best as you can. Everyone’s opinion matters.” 

Brechner noted that a core principle of the discussion on dealing with content issues in books is the question of what inhibits critical discussion and what suppresses speech. He noted that while there are new imprints coming out of major houses dealing with diversity and inclusion made by people with real vision, there is also an atmosphere of fear, and people being told to “stay in their ethnic lanes to some extent.”

Brechner addressed the growing tension between what people deem the criteria for a diverse writer versus how a writer self-identifies, especially as calls for books to be rescinded, cancelled, or delayed continue to grow. “In my mind, the important thing is to allow for voices to be heard,” said Brechner.

“There are certain elements that suppress speech,” Brechner added, “and I just don’t think history has shown us that that’s a good idea for anybody…The power of self-determination is something we should be thinking about, and the power of exchanging ideas without being retrenched into fear and anxiety and authors being told to not write about certain things.”

As the session facilitators and audience members began to raise ideas for discussion, one topic that came up is how booksellers should decide whether or not to stock books that feature content that can be considered to be harmful or offensive in the way it represents different races, classes, cultures, or identities. 

Annie Carl of The Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds, Washington, noted that booksellers who aren’t comfortable having a conversation with their managerial staff about unease over carrying such titles should try to find another safe person in the industry they can talk to, someone who can serve as a resource and provide advice.

On the topic of talking with industry professionals, Lillian James of Island Books in Mercer Island, Washington noted that she has had two sales reps apologize to her over a brown character on the cover of a book because her store is in a very white, affluent neighborhood and they thought it wouldn’t sell. She said she chose to stock the books, noting that she sees the importance of voting with her store’s dollars to support diverse titles in white, affluent areas where publishers think they might not sell.  

In response to the use of the term “brown” during the discussion, Denise Chávez of Casa Camino Real Book Store & Art Gallery in Las Cruces, New Mexico, respectfully expressed that she finds the term uncomfortable and urged booksellers to be mindful of their language. “They are not them,” she said. “They are not those people, they’re our families, our children…I think we need to watch our language because we need to remember that we’re all one family, one people.”

Mariana Calderon of Second Star to the Right in Denver, Colorado, noted that having a conversation helps in this regard as well, and that instead of using a catch-all term like brown, booksellers can research to identify and name specific ethnicities.

Alicia Michielli from Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, New York, stressed the importance of listening to each other and to customers as well. She shared a story of how a young trans woman came in her store pulled a copy of The Female Eunuch by Germain Greer from the shelf, expressing that Greer is a trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) and she felt uncomfortable that the author was in stock. Michielli and the customer had a long conversation, she noted, to be sure that the customer felt heard.

As far as management’s role in handling these issues is concerned, Fabian added, she believes that training is the answer. “As an industry,” she said, “I think we have a responsibility now to our managers, to our owners, to people in positions of power to learn how to have those conversations with our staff and with our customers.”

Another topic that came up was how booksellers can talk to schools that might find a certain title’s content objectionable.

Brechner noted that booksellers sometimes have to ask schools to check in with their own values. When his store was hosting an author event with a local school for The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George (Viking Children’s), because of one scene in the book featuring queer characters, the school was ready to pull the plug on the event. “I said, would you do this if they were a boy and a girl? And they had to think about that,” Brechner shared.

Grochowski added that McLean & Eakin had the book Wrecked by Maria Padian (Algonquin Young Readers) on the list for an event with a local school that objected to the book because it featured a violent incident similar to one that had happened at the school; she noted that she urged the school to reconsider and highlighted the importance of discussing with schools why a certain decision is being made.

Laurie noted that in San Francisco she doesn’t usually run into issues when giving book talks, but if she were to get any pushback, she would likely go to the school librarian for assistance. “Look for the allies because they’re out there,” she said.

Another topic that came up was how to handle books that have been pulled from publication or cancelled.

While sensitivity readers are an option to help screen for problematic content in books, Stephanie Seales of Bookshop Santa Cruz noted that it’s a “Band-Aid solution.” Said Seales, “The problem is that the publishing industry is not diverse enough. There’s not enough representation…sensitivity readers are great for now, but we need to be looking forward to actually having representation.” 

Madeline Shier of Powell’s Books said that a concept she’s found helpful is the idea of intent and impact. In this situation, that applies to something like a cisgender author writing a trans character and wanting to have the inclusion of that character but, depending on how they write it since they haven’t lived that experience, the impact of that may be harmful or negative, she said, noting it’s an aspect that should be considered.

Carl noted that things like sensitivity reading, diversity, intent, and impact are all facets of the inclusion part of the industry, and the most important thing booksellers can do is research to be sure representation is accurate.

James also noted that as books are getting pulled from shelves because of #MeToo allegations, Island Bookstore has determined that none of its booksellers should tell customers why a book is not in stock. Instead, she said, if challenged about the absence of a particular author’s titles, “just say, I’m not really 100 percent sure that he shouldn’t be on the shelf, but we couldn’t decide, so we defaulted to not having him on the shelf.”

Tegan Tigani from Queen Anne Book Co. in Seattle said that booksellers who attend events like “Meet the Editor” at BookExpo should share positive stories about things that have worked for them or that they’d like to see more of because the industry professionals they speak with can take it back to the publisher. “We might not be hiring the people in publishing,” she added, “but the more they get that message, the more they’ll be empowered.”