Thursday, January 17, 2019

What About Shame?


This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.

This year, I’ve heard a lot of mulling over how to handle “problematic classics” when reading them with children, or using an equity or de-colonizing lens while weeding library collections.   This is hardly a new topic; but this year I heard a new question:


“What about the the parent who wants to read one of these classics with their child; what about their shame?”


I heard this question twice, on different occasions, enough to pique my interest, because I hadn’t heard it before. The context and phrasing was slightly different each time, but the use of the word “shame,” and the centering of this particular type of shame, was the same.   In one case we were discussing a small library’s obligation to stock classics; in the other, the appropriateness of offering alternative reads in response to a requested classic. And the gist was a librarians’ discomfort at making a White parent feel discomfort by drawing attention to the racism in a classic children’s book.


So what about shame?  It’s critical to take a moment to understand that there are different kinds of shame.  A layperson’s tour reminds us that while painful, much shame is fleeting: an embarrassment at seeing one’s self differently, exposed, in front of others. This kind of shame can be instructive if the owner is open to it, or it can be dismissed. Shame can also be toxic, when it is chronically experienced through childhood, leading to damaging feelings of inferiority. Self-esteem and resilience are crucial coping mechanisms for shame.


A clear provocation for children’s shame are dehumanizing stereotypes, including those we find in children’s books.  We know that no book is perfect, and that time shapes our understandings of our own humanity.  So why should we expect classic children’s books not to be complicated, or difficult?  Yes, they are books with widely recognized merit or popularity; but we know we are likely to find racism in older children’s books, so we should expect to find them in our “beloved” classics, and expect that for some readers this will be unacceptable.  

Not to do so is to imply that some people’s shame is acceptable shame. This is what we do when we excuse a book as being “a product of its time,” or insist that we can separate out the “bad parts” and enjoy the rest without perpetuating racism.  Racial slurs and stereotypes in classics that are not recognized or called out become dismissable, and therefore the shame that many readers take from them, acceptable.


This is what I find so intriguing about the question “What about their shame?”  That question suggests that we should accept the shame that we know many BIPOC children experience when reading racist classics, because the shame of the parent embarrassed at having the racism called out is unacceptable.   There is a false equivalency at holding these two very different types of shame in comparison to each other, and also a fallacy that they are somehow in competition.


So, since we seem to have a hard time with it, what about the shame of a parent who can’t find a beloved-yet-racist classic at their small library branch?  I certainly hope that the library would obtain it for them, if, at the end of the day, it is indeed what they want. But librarians know never to take a request at face value. There’s always more under the first question, right?


Why do most parents or caregivers ask for a classic?  It is most likely that 1) they remember reading it, fondly; or, 2) it showed up on a recommended list.   Underneath either of those motivations is a desire for the caregiver to do the best for their child, either by creating for them an experience as powerful and positive as they themselves remember, or by following up on the advice of an expert. Those are important, relevant, and valuable motivations.  And either of them can be addressed with a variety of recommended books, including the one they first asked for. By listening to the caregiver, we can help them unpack what they are looking for, and supply them with ample and informed possibilities, so that they can make an informed selection for their child.  


In fact, being informed is one critical element for managing potential shame, for either child or caregiver.  It this is indeed our concern--people’s shame, and building resilience to it (for everyone will experience it, and might as well in their public library as anywhere else)--then we need to focus on building broad, diverse, and evolving library collections and reading recommendations that provide for all children to develop self-esteem, rather than focussing on accepting one person’s shame over another’s.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What To Look For In Data About Diversity In Publishing?

Today, Reading While White is pleased to welcome guest blogger Amy Koester for a discussion of the 2017 CCBC statistics. This post is part of our end-of-year retrospective series.

The beginning of a new calendar year is rife with end-of-year summaries, top ten lists, and other pieces meant to help us put the work and output of the previous year into context. This holds true for diversity in publishing, too, with the anticipated release of CCBC data on children’s books written by and about BIPOC in 2018. As we prepare to consider these newest statistics, we can take some time to consider changes we’ve seen over the course of previous years’ CCBC numbers as well some other pieces of data that can help us to see whether the publishing ecosystem is diversifying.

What do the CCBC stats tell us?

Before anything else, it’s important to recognize that the CCBC does not receive every single book published for children in a given year--so the stats they share represent data about a significant sampling of children’s books, not the full roster of what's published. People looking at this data should keep this in mind throughout any perusal and analysis of the data. One must understand what sampling the data sets represent in order to truly learn anything from them. (For some additional context, the CCBC gives this further clarification about what materials they receive and are counted in their data: most of the trade books published in the United States, some series and formula non-fiction books, and some books from Canadian publishers who distribute in the U.S.) That said, the CCBC data is the most comprehensive data set available about books published for children in a given year, and so this data is our closest proxy to all of publishing for children.

When I’m looking at CCBC stats, I usually use 2015 as my starting place--that’s the first full year for which We Need Diverse Books was in existence, and it’s also the year we got the first set of data about diversity in the publishing field (more on that below). If 2015 could be considered a year in which diversity across the children’s publishing ecosystem became a high profile priority, how do current practices compare? Until the 2018 CCBC data is available, we’ve got the 2017 numbers for comparison.

Books Created by BIPOC

Comparing BIPOC-created books in 2015 and 2017, we see (in order of greatest to least gross increase in titles):
  • There were 98 more Asian American-created books in 2017 than in 2015; Asian American-created books for youth increased 56% from 2015 to 2017, from 176 titles to 274
  • There were 56 more Latinx-created books in 2017 than in 2015; Latinx-created books for youth increased 93% from 2015 to 2017, from 60 titles to 116 titles
  • There were 19 more First Nations-created books in 2017 than in 2015; First Nations-created books for youth increased 100% from 2015 to 2017, from 19 titles to 38
  • There were 14 more Black-created books in 2017 than in 2015; Black-created books for youth increased 13% from 2015 to 2017, from 108 titles to 122
Across all BIPOC-created books, this is a net increase of 52%, or 187 more titles in 2017 than were created in 2015.
What questions do these data about BIPOC-created books raise? Questions for further consideration and research include:
  • How many individual BIPOC authors and illustrators are there in a year of publishing? That is to say, how many BIPOC authors are given opportunity to publish, and similarly how many BIPOC illustrators? How many of the books by Black creators in any given recent year are by Jason Reynolds, for example? If a small handful of BIPOC creators publish multiple books, that implies that the overall number of BIPOC creators is not as large as even these relatively dismal data suggest. (And the goal is not to simply increase the number of creators at the expense of individuals creating multiple books; rather, we should look beyond the idea of more books by BIPOC and think more of supporting more careers for BIPOC creators.)
  • What would an ideal distribution of BIPOC creators even look like? What should be our metrics for achieving greater equity in creation of books for youth? Despite the fact that there was a 100% increase in titles by First Nations creators between 2015 and 2017, there were still only 38 such titles counted in 2017--which amounts to a measly 1% of all counted books created in that year. Data can look impressive--the number of First Nations creators doubled, after all!--while still identifying systemic issues.
Books About BIPOC

Comparing books about BIPOC characters and experiences in 2015 and 2017, we see (in order of greatest to least comparative disparity to U.S. population):
  • Books about Latinx characters and experiences increased 154%, from 85 to 216 titles, from 2015 to 2017, and represented 5.84% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 17.6% of the American population being Hispanic, according to 2017 data)
  • Books about Black characters and experiences increased 26% from 2015 to 2017, from 270 to 340 titles, and represented 9.19% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 13.9% of the American population being Black or African American, according to 2017 data)
  • Books about First Nations characters and experiences increased 71% from 2015 to 2017, from 42 to 72 titles, and represented 1.95% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 2.1% of the American population being American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander, according to 2017 data)
  • Books about Asian-American characters and experiences increased 174% from 2015 to 2017, from 113 to 310 titles, and represented 8.38% of books for youth in 2017 (This is compared to 6.3% of the American population being Asian, according to 2017 data)
In total, 25% of all books published for children and counted by the CCBC in 2017 were about BIPOC characters or experiences; this is compared to 15% of all titles in 2015. Across all books about BIPOC characters in experiences, this is a net increase of 84%, or 428 more titles in 2017 than were published in 2015.
It’s imperative to remember two other things in considering these CCBC data:
  • Comparing representation of BIPOC in children’s books to representation across United States population demographics does not imply that if and when literary representation meets population demographics, diversity will be “achieved”--rather, considering the abysmally underrepresented status of Latinx, First Nations, and Black people in children’s books now, the population benchmarks provide a framework for measuring progress, not for determining success.
  • These CCBC data tell us only the number of books by and about BIPOC in a given year--they do not speak to the accuracy or integrity of the books and the stories they tell. Dr. Debbie Reese makes this point in her expansion of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of books as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors: that many of these mirrors may distort the appearance of BIPOC like “fun house mirrors.” We do well to keep in mind that numerical increases in representation among creators and story characters is not necessarily reflective of better representation.
What questions do these data about books about BIPOC raise? These questions are areas in need of further consideration and exploration:
  • What are we to make of the reality that while both the number of books by BIPOC and the number of books about BIPOC have increased, the number of books about has grown more significantly? This is to say, what are we to make of the reality that, in all likelihood, a significant proportion of these new books about BIPOC are by White creators who inherently do not have an #ownvoices perspective of the content about which they write? What does it say about the publishing ecosystem that this “diversity trend” seems to prioritize stories about BIPOC, for which there is ever-increasing demand, without necessarily proportionately fostering support and empowerment of BIPOC creators?
  • What does it mean that books about Asian characters and experiences are the only demographic group besides White to have a higher percentage of stories about their experiences than their percentage of the national population? To what degree do stereotypes come into play here, in particular the myth of the “model minority”? Given the trends evident in the CCBC data, it’s worth revisiting this 2015 roundtable conversation that was hosted by Zetta Elliott and featured Sarah Park Dahlen, Shveta Thakrar, Mike Jung, Katie Yamasaki, and Sona Charaipotra.
  • Conversely, what does it mean that the proportion of books about Latinx characters and experiences is particularly mismatched with population data? To what extent do stereotypes and White supremacy factor into the landscape that has resulted in this discrepancy?
If we were to break down the about data even further, what would we find in terms of the types of stories being published about BIPOC? For example, what proportion of books about Black characters and experiences are stories of slavery or the civic rights era versus contemporary stories that normalize, not historicize, Black experiences? Similarly, what proportion of books about First Nations characters and experiences take place in modern settings as opposed to historical accounts of First Nations peoples? (To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with historical stories about BIPOC; it is problematic, however, when the majority of stories portray BIPOC as groups relevant only at particular moments in history and/or without presence in today’s increasingly diverse reality.)

Considering diversity in the publishing industry

The number of books published by and about BIPOC is only a piece of the larger children’s publishing ecosystem--to truly transform publishing and ensure that great books by and about BIPOC can get into libraries and the hands of kids, representation among publishing professionals is important to consider, too. In 2015, Lee & Low conducted a Diversity Baseline study to capture demographic data about those employed in the publishing industry at that time. It’s interesting data to look at, and it’ll be the basis for comparison when, later this year, they’ll issue the second survey to capture what the industry looks like four years later. Until we have that comparison data, we’re left with more anecdotal and subjective descriptors of the publishing industry. One such example is this recent article from Publishers Weekly that compiles the stories of how various publishing industry folks got into children’s books--and the folks sharing their stories are overwhelmingly White. Regardless of whether the forthcoming Lee & Low data indicate a publishing landscape dominated by White professionals, articles like this serve to reinforce a narrative of publishing as a White field. That impacts how we think about the larger publishing ecosystem as it relates to diverse books for children.

Thinking about publishing as an ecosystem also calls into question the role of librarians and those involved in youth librarianship. What does it say about youth librarianship when we look for changes in publishing--we want to see more and learn more about diversity in children’s literature--but do not necessarily look for changes in our own practice and how we contribute to this landscape? What can and should we, as library practitioners, be doing to demand and support more systemic change?

As we head into a new year of publishing, the ALA Midwinter Meeting and all the publishing promotion that happens there, and the anticipation of the second round of data on diversity in publishing from Lee & Low, we should all be intentional about considering the different data we’re seeing and what stories they can tell about whether and how we’re moving the needle toward a more diverse ecosystem of publishing books for young people.

-Amy Koester works at Skokie Public Library as the manager of the Learning Experiences Department. She is currently wrapping up her term on the board of directors of the Association for Library Service to Children. She is a member of the editorial board of In the Library with the Lead Pipe, an open access, open peer reviewed journal on librarianship.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Benefits & Limits of Diversity Audits

This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.

Diversity audits! They’re an analytical look at a library collection through a diversity lens: tracking minority representations vs. majority. This can cover a variety of identity markers, but generally what is talked about most is numbers of BIPOC and White creators/ characters. These audits aren’t totally a new thing, but they’ve gained traction over the last year with Karen Jensen’s posts giving guidelines on how-to (also see her more recent post) and Library Journal’s online course “Equity in Action: Taking Your Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives to the Next Level” delving into the subject. I myself have started doing diversity audits, and it’s something my library is pushing for us to continue. Are diversity audits a step in the right direction of more inclusion and equity within our collections and services? Are they a performative trend with no real impact? Maybe a bit of both? But let’s back up a minute... who am I?

Hi! I’m Jenna, the newest contributor to RWW. I live in Chicago and work as a Collection Management Librarian focusing on children’s and teen materials at the Oak Park Public Library. I’m also a yoga instructor and foster kitten caretaker. Like the rest of the RWW team, I am White and working on learning what that means every day. My hope is that my blog posts will encourage you to continue learning along with me (maybe that’s schmaltzy, but it’s true). So let’s get started, shall we? Back to the books!

This blog post will not be a how-to guide for diversity audits or an analysis of the audits I did. Rather, I’d like to spend some time ruminating on the bigger picture of diversity audits. What exactly is their purpose, and what is their potential for impact?

I began doing diversity audits of my library’s collections at the request of our management team. They heard about other libraries doing it, and it aligns with our aspirations of diversity, inclusion, and equity. The intentions of diversity audits are good. They are following the same idea as CCBC’s Statistics and Lee and Low’s Baseline Survey. By finding a baseline, we have a better idea of where and how to grow. However, good intentions aren’t enough if there isn’t meaningful action and next steps to go along with it.

It bears repeating that diversity is not “a trend.” These posts from Jennifer Baker and Ellen Oh are always worth revisiting. If diversity audits are done as a one-off, primarily just so a library or library worker can say they did it, that moves into performative territory. Especially for a White librarian like myself, it’s so important to question why we do things, particularly when in relation to racial diversity. Are we doing these diversity audits because it’s the hot thing to do right now or because we actually care deeply about how we can better our collections? And if the latter, we have to acknowledge the pitfalls of diversity audits and what else needs to be done.

Diversity audits don’t represent quality, accuracy, or intersectionality. Just as books about White kids range from high literary fiction to entertaining drivel, so to should books by and about BIPOC. That said, our collections are really only being truly inclusive if the representations shared are accurate. While not every book needs to be or should be heavily themed around the race of the character, for example, depictions should ring true. And any cultural practices that are discussed need to be correct. A diversity audit might tell us that our collection has a good sized number of books with Black characters, but what if they are all historical fiction with male leads and assumed Christianity? Intersectionality is so important so we can provide books about BIPOC kids in various genres with a wide range of themes.

Another downfall is that even from the onset, we’re approaching diversity audits from a White-normative standpoint, often looking at the data as White vs. all of BIPOC lumped together. Even when separated into further categories (ex. Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American), they are still so broad. And even the books that get categorized as “diverse” can still have a heavy White influence. Consider interracial romances where more often than not, one of the characters is White. Yes, these are still diverse and valuable, but many count that as a diverse title as opposed to a White title when really, it features both representations.

Diversity audits can be really useful, don’t get me wrong. When I did my first couple audits looking at race/ethnicity of author and main character of new titles ordered within a monthlong period for various kids and teen collections, I found it eye-opening. I had thought I was being intentional in my ordering, and while I was to some point, there are so many mid-list titles I was buying that were White, White, White. I’m working on adjusting my ordering practices accordingly, which I think is likely a necessary result of any diversity audits. It’s not just about filling current gaps. It’s looking at our collection practices as a whole.

What can librarians do after performing their audits? How can we create goals to be more expansive and inclusive as we move forward? How do we recognize the usefulness of statistics, while also holding onto the importance of the stories and qualitative information behind the numbers? How can we calculate and use data while acknowledging that a quantity over quality mindset is rooted in White supremacy culture?

I’m still figuring out these answers myself, but I’ll be starting with adjusting my collection development strategies. I recommend using the diversity audits as a starting point to help make a larger plan of how to expand. I plan on setting up a schedule to regularly perform audits to see how the numbers change as my ordering strategies change. Also, I will continue to seek out accuracy and intersectionality with the help of reviews, especially those from experts of a specific identity such as Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL). For more helpful and recommended resources, check out our “Kindred Spirits” list on the side of blog.

Another goal after looking at the audits is not just about looking forward and adjusting ordering, but also looking back, evaluating the current collection, and weeding accordingly. Check out our previous posts here and here. We need to move on from weeding solely based on circulation and take into consideration how stereotypes and bias can shape the stories we provide, prioritizing accuracy and inclusiveness.

So go ahead and do your diversity audits. I honestly do recommend it, but see them as one piece of the puzzle towards creating more inclusive collections. Acknowledge what makes them useful as well as what they aren’t telling us. Collections work is always a work in progress, so let’s make that progress actually progressive by continually evaluating the hows and whys and taking a stand for collections that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

-Jenna Friebel