Wi10 Panel Offers Tips for Bringing Diverse Books Into the Spotlight

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I.W. Gregorio, Elizabeth Bluemle, and Cynthia Compton

At the Winter Institute education session “Campaigning for Diversity — Expanding Your Inventory and Customer Base,” panelists discussed how booksellers can best find, feature, and share diverse books in their stores.

Featured on the panel, which was presented by the ABC Group at ABA, were Elizabeth Bluemle of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont; Cynthia Compton of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana; and I.W. Gregorio, an author and the vice president of development for We Need Diverse Books. ABA Senior Program Officer Joy Dallanegra-Sanger moderated the discussion.

According to statistics compiled by We Need Diverse Books, 50 percent of school children are people of color, five percent have a disability, and four percent identify as LGBTQIA; however, just 10 percent of children’s books feature characters of color, 2.4 percent feature LGBTQIA characters, and the number of characters with disabilities is inconclusive. “Our books are not representing our country,” stressed Gregorio.

Presenting children of diverse backgrounds in literature will not only create new readers, but reading books about cross-cultural relationships and characters have social and neurological implications, said Bluemle. One study found that a classroom of students experienced lessened racial tensions after spending six weeks reading a book featuring a cross-cultural relationship. “It’s vital that we provide these books to kids,” Bluemle said.

While Compton noted that her bookstore is located in a predominantly Caucasian community, which is seemingly not reflective of national statistics, she recently discovered that more than 60 languages are spoken in the homes of children in area school districts. “That may not be your population,” she said, “but dig a little deeper, because there’s more diversity in your community than you think or may be aware of.”

Addressing the practicality of selling diverse literature in bookstores, Compton said that having titles easily accessible on displays and encouraging staff to share diverse books can make a big difference. 4 Kids Books & Toys adheres to “the rule of three,” she said, and that means making sure that staff has three significantly different options on hand to share with customers looking for children’s book recommendations. The store also keeps notecards sorted by gender and age that offer several book ideas for busy booksellers who need to think quickly.

Flying Pig, too, has a system for helping booksellers who need quick children’s book recommendations. A master grid of diverse titles, sorted by age, is available for booksellers to peruse and to add to. The latter helps get the staff involved, said Bluemle. In terms of training staff to hand-sell more diverse titles, “I do think a direct conversation with your staff is really important because if you can convey your passion and commitment, it will affect their selling habits,” she said.

Booksellers should also be looking at how they are pitching diverse books to customers, said Bluemle. Rather than “picking out race when race isn’t a piece of the story in an overt way,” explain to customers the highlights and plot points of the story. “That is really the way to sell any book.”

At Flying Pig, Bluemle is always looking for ways to bring diversity to the store’s displays and selection. When assembling a Black History Month display, staff highlighted the triumphs and accomplishments of African Americans, rather than the heavy history. “I want kids in Vermont to associate Black History with positive things as well as our shameful past. It was really fun to pick out the books to put on our displays,” she said.

Bluemle also recently committed to “Read 50/50”: a personal challenge to read one book written by a non-majority author or about a diverse character for every non-diverse book she reads this year. By featuring these types of titles year-round, she said, customers will recognize that the bookstore supports non-majority books just as strongly.

Among the ways that Compton makes diverse literature available to kids in the community are through book fairs at churches and community centers and bringing authors into schools in-person or via Skype. At these types of events, she said, the books on display “should include literature featuring all different types of culture, no matter where you’re going to sell books.”

The panelists recommended that booksellers looking for more information about diverse children’s books visit Bluemle’s diverse books list on LibraryThing, the CBC Diversity website, and multicultural publisher Lee & Low Books’ blog.

Additionally, We Need Diverse Books is working with School Library Journal to develop Booktalking Kits inspired by author Grace Lin’s cheat sheet for selling diversity. The kits aim to help booksellers, teachers, and librarians to discover and share non-majority narratives by providing diverse books flow charts for various reading levels, shelf-talkers, and more. Samples of the kits will be available in ABA’s Spring 2015 Children’s White Box mailing, coming in May.