|Image by Lisa Nowlain
It’s 2016 and the increased attention given to discussion of multicultural literature, race, and racism in children’s and young adult literature over the past two years, including the launch and ongoing work of We Need Diverse Books (which looks at all aspects of diversity), and important if sometimes painful discussions of books like A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, among others, feels like a turning point of some kind.
Maybe it’s social media and the internet, which has enabled the discussion to extend farther within and beyond the world of children’s and young adult books. Maybe it’s that we’re starting to see effort to create tangible and meaningful change to the status quo. School Library Journal’s commitment diversifying its reviewers is one example of this. So, too, is its launch of Indie Voices, a quarterly review of self-published books reflecting diversity, which builds on the important work of author, activist, and scholar Zetta Elliott, who has been calling attention to the possibilities and importance of self-publishing for some time.
And yet this increased visibility comes with an increased sense of resentment, sometimes vague, sometimes overt. Why are activists calling for changes and challenging racism in children’s and young adult literature so demanding, so radical, so angry, so sensitive, so unwilling to give kids credit? And why can’t we understand that change takes time?
I want to talk about that one in particular. That change takes time.
It’s true. Change does take time.
But it’s 2016. And as we look at recent, welcome examples of change and progress, it’s important to understand and remember that this work—to get more books published that authentically reflect the diverse lives of children and teens, to get those in the children’s and young adult book world who are gatekeepers in one way or another to do something that is not only meaningful but lasting—has been going on for a long time. A very long time.
Many people reading this blog know that. They know it because they’ve been part of the effort for years. Sometimes decades.
But not everyone knows—or acknowledges—that everything happening today, right now, has grown out of activism that stretches back years. Not a few years. Not ten or twenty. Not even fifty. Nancy Larrick’s 1965 Saturday Review article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” wasn’t the starting point, either.
Everything happening today is part of an ongoing effort that spans at least ninety years. Think of Pura Belpré, reaching out to the immigrant communities in New York City in the 1920s, and eventually writing books reflective of her Puerto Rican culture, which many of them shared. Think of Augusta Baker and Charlamae Hill Rollins, both advocating for collections reflecting diversity and the lives of children and teens in the mid-twentieth century. This foundational work took place long before the Larrick article, which articulated a reality with which families of color and First/Native Nations had been aware for years and years.
In 1980, the now-defunct Council on Interracial Books for Children published a checklist for evaluating books for racism and sexism. It was published in their Bulletin and has been reprinted and republished in print and online over the past 36 years. Many others have offered culturally-specific insight into racism in children’s books.
And yet stereotypes and racism persist, not occasionally, but consistently.
Add to all of this the numerous books and articles that have been written—and continue to be written—by scholars, librarians, and teachers, not to mention the commitment of activist authors, artists and publishers (Children’s Book Press, Just Us Books, and Lee and Low, to name a few) across more recent decades, and a detailed picture begins to develop of a struggle for change that has more than paid its dues. And sure, we can point to progress, but when we're having some of the same discussions and conversations and arguments we were having ten and twenty and thirty and fifty and more years ago, we can also point to systemic and, yes, willful resistance to change.
Yes, change takes time. But the long haul has already happened, and there is still so far to go.
That’s maddening, to say the least.
If you want a refresher, or want to learn more, about the history of activism around multicultural literature, here are some people and efforts to start reading about (please add your own suggestions in the comments):
- Augusta Baker
- Pura Belpré
- Rudine Sims Bishop
- Council on Interracial Books for Children
- Daniel Duran
- Violet Harris
- Coretta Scott King Task Force
- Debbie Reese
- Charlamae Hill Rollins
- Barbara Rollock
- Isabel Schon
- Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin
And the "Kindred Spirits," listed to the right, are among many who are ensuring the work continues.
Finally, when people of color and First/Native Nations and allies demand more multicultural books, and authentic multicultural books, when they call out racism when they see it, they are doing more than advocating for books, they are advocating for the lives of children and teens.
None of us should ever forget that.
(Check out the We Need Diverse Books “Looking Back” series for more history.)