We recently received a question: Why are so many picture books (often biographies) written by White authors and then illustrated by a BIPOC artist? And often these stories are labeled as #OwnVoices [credit: Corinne Duyvis] when really it’s a White person telling the story of a racial minority. If the publisher came up with the idea, why not choose a person from that background to both illustrate AND tell the story? If the author came up with the idea, what does this say about White people and our insistence to control the narrative? And ultimately, what is the impact of this pattern of White-authored narratives about BIPOC on child readers?
A few of us at RWW thought we’d explore this question, and we are sharing our reflections below.
ALLIE: There is an overabundance of “overcoming pain” narratives in these White-authored, BIPOC-illustrated, non-fiction picture books. I think of what Zetta Elliott termed the “White appetite for Black pathology.”
We have decided not to list examples because we do not want any BIPOC illustrators to be dragged into the spotlight against their will, or feel compelled to respond to this piece, or, especially, feel pressured to justify their choices. We ask that our readers--especially White readers--be mindful of this dynamic as well, should you choose to comment or respond to this piece.
But the pattern is undeniable--just look for picture book biographies in your library, if you need a starting point. And as a pattern, these books indicate a system that favors White authors telling stories of BIPOC pain, a system in which a BIPOC artist’s role is to illustrate those White author’s words. Giving these books a BIPOC illustrator doesn’t solve the problem of that White appetite for BIPOC pain.
SAM: One obvious issue - how much (and what kind of) research has the White author done about this subject? Can we trust this person to tell this story? I think the answer a great majority of the time is a resounding NO, and yet… we still see these books, over and over.
ELISA: I think there are so many factors at play, including what you wrote about, Allie, and how White-controlled school curricula can often reinforce and motivate these pain narratives. I’m also thinking about how much nonfiction authorship has traditionally (even if implicitly) meant expertise in a subject area, and how we White people are all too often regarded as an expert on everything--even experiences that are not our own.
I would think that the way picture books are acquired has to do with this too. Unless the publisher has the idea outright (as our questioner brought up) it is my understanding that manuscripts are often acquired first, and then the illustrator is assigned later. Assuming that is true (at least most of the time), this would mean publishers are signing White creators’ manuscripts first and then inviting BIPOC creators into the projects. In which case, the White lens is still the one on which the entire project is based. A White author received a book deal about a BIPOC subject - and this could very much mean that a BIPOC author did not.
Still, I do not in any way want to devalue the impact of illustration and visual literacy! Reading pictures is as important as reading text--and talented artists have and will continue to share their voices and make their mark in ways that are incredible.
ALLIE: Oh, I totally agree. Especially for the youngest kids, who will dive into these books by sitting with and absorbing the pictures long before they can read the words. BIPOC illustrators can imbue their artwork with an authenticity that will speak to young readers in ways that words cannot, and that is invaluable.
The term #OwnVoices gives a name and identity to a crucial piece of the puzzle of inequity in children’s literature: the ability and access people from marginalized groups need in order to tell (and publish!) their stories, rather than be crowded out by dominant voices who overwhelm that ability. It is one of many important markers to note and track in books’ subjects and authorship, and at the same time it is a complex issue. Unfortunately, the term can be and has been weaponized by people attempting to police what topics BIPOC can and cannot write about. We do not live in a binary world in which a work is completely “OwnVoices” or “Not OwnVoices.” (For more on this topic, I highly recommend these FAQs by Corinne Duyvis, who originated the #OwnVoices term and hashtag.)
So while we might all agree that an #OwnVoices illustrator is a positive… it is not a systemic fix. It feels more like an easy and comfortable halfway-path for the Powers That Be… a way for publishers and marketers to be able to put a book in the “OwnVoices” category (that false binary) without addressing the deeper problems with inequitable representation and the White fixation on BIPOC pain narratives. In short, it’s part of a system that preserves the power White people have to tell BIPOC stories.
ELISA: I remember hearing about White male authors negotiating language in their book contracts requesting BIPOC artists--especially women and nonbinary people--be hired to illustrate their manuscripts. This can prevent all-male or all-White projects and can have the impact of increasing the numbers of BIPOC illustrators publishing books. At the same time, I can also see where this might end up assuaging guilt and supporting that “comfortable halfway-path” you describe.
If someone is thinking we’re reading too much into this, one challenge might be to look for books where a BIPOC author has written about any nonfiction subject, and a White artist has been hired to illustrate it. Can you think of any? (I can think of only a few.) That it is harder to list the latter and super easy to list the former shows that this pattern is undeniable.
Looking at biographies about BIPOC subjects written by White people can also reveal (through the topics and themes that keep emerging: pain narratives, books about athletes and musicians from more than a half-century ago, etc.) where White adult interest lies. When White creators and publishers control the industry, White people are determining what is interesting, which stories are worthy of exploration, whose stories are being told, and how they are told through text (White-authored books, even biographies about BIPOC subjects, often appear to speak to White readers as a default audience). What topics, themes, or subjects might emerge (or how might these same stories be written differently) if these books were not authored by White people?
SAM: I think you’re both right about this pattern being more palatable for the White-dominated publishing world. Think of the White authors who have made a career writing books about BIPOC subjects - I wonder how often one of these authors thinks to themselves, “Hmmm, maybe I should step aside and let an insider tell this story.” Recently I heard a story about a White author being asked what research they did before writing a book centered around a culture that wasn’t their own. The author’s response? That they “probably should have.” (I asked for and was given permission to link to the post in question.) The sheer audacity to not only try to tell the story instead of using one’s privilege to leverage a BIPOC voice, but also to show such flippant disregard for authenticity? That’s a White people thing.
ELISA: That’s an all-around yikes and YES. Another thing we White people like to do is pretend that because informational texts are rooted in facts, that they are somehow race-neutral and that the identity of the creator does not matter. (Pretending Whiteness has no meaning is a pretty effective strategy to both ignore and maintain White dominance.) Remember when the Tham Luang cave rescue happened last year in Thailand? I remember listening to voices on Twitter talking about what an awesome children’s book the story would make, but also joking that a White person would probably write and publish it first. Sure enough, that’s what happened. All books contain a point of view--including informational texts. And that’s before we address how many children’s books claiming to be nonfiction actually contain misinformation, stereotypes, or nothing at all about BIPOC (straight up erasure).
ALLIE: I also think about the impact on BIPOC illustrators, to have these projects so constant and prevalent. Your job is still to illustrate a White person's words. And the message implicitly sent to White illustrators: You don't have to deign to illustrate the books that "those people" write.
These messages are deeply dangerous. The CCBC statistics we’re all so familiar with are highly useful, but statistics alone do not tell the full story, do not encapsulate all the subtle methods by which White people cling to a White-dominant world--in this case, by controlling who gets to tell the story.
SAM: So where does this leave us; namely, what can I do as a _____ (fill in the blank: teacher, librarian, caregiver, general kidlit person, etc.) to make sure I de-center the dominant White cishet male gaze in books about marginalized people and groups in as many ways as possible - the writing, the visuals, all the way down to the editing and publishing - in my interactions with the children in my life? How do we (speaking now about the wider kidlit world) make sure we de-center the dominant White cishet male gaze in books about marginalized people and groups in as many ways as possible - again, the writing, the visuals, all the way down to the editing and publishing? Should publishers hire sensitivity readers for nonfiction titles in which the book creators do not share the same identity/identities as the person or groups that the book centers? We in the kidlit community need to consider the ramifications of this pattern.
ALLIE: Well, I’m a definite “yes” on that last question, and I know many publishers do indeed hire sensitivity readers for nonfiction as well as fiction (good on them.)
I think for me, it comes down to recognizing that this pattern is part of a system of White oppression in children’s literature. That system is nuanced and tricky. It adapts to challenges to its power, and those adaptations aren’t always immediately obvious. We won’t out-smart racism by introducing more binaries (“#OwnVoices Only!!”) into the equation, but we can recognize racist patterns for what they are, and use the tools available to us to fight (e.g. the OwnVoices identifier) against these racist patterns.
ELISA: Agree. And I'm pushing myself to remember, always, that although there are a lot of adults in the kidlit ecosystem, it is young readers who are on the receiving end of these patterns once these books are out in the world and into their lives.