A Fuller Picture: Bridges to Self and Others

A continuing conversation on the absence of children’s books by and about people of color, Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Teaching for Change as “racist” for not carrying his children’s book, and related issues. (This is part 2; earlier transcript, plus full recording.).

  • Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change;
  • Zetta Elliott, author of books for children and teens;
  • Enid Lee, author and co-editor, Beyond Heroes and Holidays;
  • Virginia Spatz, feature reporter on the Education Town Hall; and
  • Thomas Byrd, host of the Education Town Hall;

Byrd: I am amazed that he thinks that he [Rush Limbaugh] can write a book about education. That’s the part that is tripping me out.

[Laughter, simultaneous comments — VS: It’s not about education. DM: It gets worse, Thomas. It’s a book about history…]

DM: There’s a fabulous critical review by Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature. We’ve linked to it from our article on Teaching for Change.org. People need to read it, because another reason we wouldn’t carry the book is: In his definition of U.S. history, history has always been about freedom and liberty. Our whole history — centuries of enslavement and oppression and are omitted from that history.

Zetta Elliott: He’s writing alternative history — it’s a time travel story; he’s essentially rewriting history to suit his own agenda. Not surprising in the least.

VS: I wanted to mention that Debbie Reese who couldn’t be with us this morning sent a message to share. [direct quote here]. She wanted to point out that he has said, well, he can’t be racist and this book is obviously full of diversity because it has a, quote, Native American, character in it named “Freedom.” Well, you know, she points out that if it were really a native American, the young woman would have some real identity not just this made up thing. And the way you know that she is Native American — I did take a look at the book — is that she has a feather in her hair. And his idea of diversity is very skewed.

And I was shocked…I really had no idea that so few books were out there for children. Because I guess the ones that I picked for my own kids — I did buy some of them from Teaching for Change, and they went to the library — I had no idea that less than 10% of books for children have non-white characters in them. And I just hope our authors can speak a little bit to this — I guess one of you is self-published. How do you get published nowadays?

ZE: I only got my first picture book published because I entered Lee and Low’s new voices contest. And I hope everyone will look that up — the deadline is coming up in September for this year. And I submitted a story to them, and it won the Honor Award in their New Voices Contest. And then the book went on to win a number of major prizes, several of which were won by the illustrator, Shadra strickland.

And I thought now every door is going to open to me because I have 25 other manuscripts and Ive just won all these awards. And I could not place another manuscript.

So I self-published my time-travel novel, A Wish After Midnight, which is inspired by Octavia Butler’s Kindred. And then Amazon came to me.

I know it was a difficult moment for me, but they reached out to me and said: We’re starting a publishing company, and we love your book, and we don’t want to change anything — which is a big issue for writers of color, having editors who are not from our community or our cultures editing our work. And they said we don’t want to change anything, we just want to give it a new cover and reach more people.

And so that was how I had my first young adult novel published. They published by next book, Ship of Souls, which is also historical fantasy. Then I went back to self-publishing. Because Amazon actually started to follow the Big Five began to pattern itself after the traditional publishers.

DM: There’s been a recent campaign, “We Need Diverse Books,” to draw attention to the need to pressure publishers, so that people don’t have to go that alternate route.

This should be the mainstream publishing route. There are smaller, independent publishers that have been playing a stronger role. But it is a crisis in publishing and for classrooms these days.

Because many of your listeners are here in DC, I do want to reiterate that it’s one of the reasons that, despite the fact that it’s really a struggle to continue operation of the bookstore — we are having great financial difficulty — we’re committed to doing everything we can to keep operating the bookstore there. Because these books need visibility. They need to sell. That’s part of the way we need to tell publishers: There’s an audience.

And if we cannot continue operation of the bookstore, that is one more way that they will not be visible and it will be hard to turn the tables.

Byrd: I know you have to leave…I would like for you to share with us all: What do you need? How can we help you? …We need this work that you’re doing, so how do we assure that you can continue?

DM: Two things. One is donations to Teaching for Change are always welcome. We can put a very beautiful, colorful plaque with your name up in the bookstore.

The other thing is just to make sure that everybody you know purchases their books at the bookstore.

We spend an incredible amount of time creating the selection that is there, and then, sadly, all too often people find the titles there and then go on-line and order them at Amazon.

And ordering at Amazon is very different than what Zetta is talking about — Zetta’s talking about getting access to publishing which vitally needed — but people need to place their orders for books through an independent bookseller….

You can go to TeachingForChange.org and link to our webstore. You can order any book from wherever you are.

But as you’re talking with people, if they’re placing an order books for their bookclub or for a classroom for a friend, just make sure that they know that they need — what we find often is that people who would never shop at Wal-Mart don’t blink when they say, “Oh, I’m going to order that book from Amazon.” Amazon is the Wal-Mart of independent bookstores. So we just need to be sure that people support indies with their purchases.

I think it is a testimony to the strength of this We Need Diverse Books campaign and the work that people have done for many years that Rush Limbaugh feels threatened, and we need to just ramp it up. I need to sign off.

VS: I wanted to ask — perhaps Enid you could speak a little bit to maybe your work, Beyond Heroes and Holidays, and other things that I’ve seen at the Teaching for Change store that are resources for teachers that people who are distant from DC might want to know about.

EL: I wanted to say that the possibility is there when people know that the books are present. It’s very important.

Let me give a concrete example. I work in schools, and it’s not only teachers, but kids actually want those books. So I think one of the things that teachers need to do is make those books available to students, despite some of the structured curriculum that we have. Because kids come back — kids of color come back — and ask, “Do you have any more books like those?”

So that’s one thing to share with, you know, with Teaching for Change and other publishers — to know that children want the books.

Another conversation I had with a fifth grader: She said, “Why don’t you have lists of books that kids should read on your website? Books with people that look like us?”

The thing is that books with people of color are also important for children of all backgrounds. Books with children of color build bridges to children’s self and to others. And I’m saying that when we do work with schools — the work we have done through Beyond Heroes and Holidays — we have found the response. There is a public for it. We simply need to get the word out more.

The other thing, too, is that when we heard that so few children’s books have people of color — when you think that people of color make up 75% of the world. It tells you that what is being written about and offered to children is a very small part of humanity. And all children — all of our children, regardless of background — deserve better and a fuller picture of life, you know. So I think those are some of the ways to talk about it that will get people engaged with material like this.

Once you have the books with you, children flock to them. And children of all backgrounds flock to them.

We are concerned about questions of literacy. Children will struggle with books that are about themselves, simply because books work as mirrors to self, you know, and they see themselves in it. And I find this all across the country. In fact we don’t have enough.

Books for children that have people of color in them frequently are limited to what it is that they cover. There are so many more stories to tell about the lives of people of color. We need to keep writing. We need to get them out.

And this attack by Rush Limbaugh, I hope that what we will do is use it to highlight the need and also highlight the present and push forward on it.

Byrd: Enid, let me jump in here because we’ve got about four minutes left. The number being used now is that less than 10% of books for children have people of color. I kind of want to get a sense: Do you know what that has been in the past, say two decades ago? And also how do we overcome the barriers…to increase that to a more acceptable number? What do we have to do?

ZE: I can say that if you go on-line and look up this diversity gap, Lee and Low has created a graphic that actually shows that the number of books about kids of color is decreasing. We actually peaked in the 1990s and its going down.

As we see the demographic changing, and children of color are the majority in our schools, we actually see fewer books being published.

I think that many of the barriers that exist are due to the fact that the publishing industry itself — the people who staff the publishing companies — are a homogeneous group they are overwhelmingly white and middle class. And if we don’t have a more diverse editorial staff who are acquiring and marketing the books — I can’t tell you how many rejection letters I get that say, “Oh, you write beautifully, but there’s no market for this.”

I mean every other corporation is out there trying to tap the African American market, the Latino market, the Asian American market. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s really, it’s what Enid said about 75% of the world’s population being people of color. It’s not about money, it’s really about power.

If you want to empower children of color you do need to give them books that show them that they are participants and makers of history and that’s what we don’t get.

Byrd: So it’s the same old story. I just want to make this comment. We keep the books out of the hands of the hands and the community.

ZE: It’s not even just keep the books out of their hands. It’s give them one representation only.

So we have a whole lot of stories about the Civil Rights Movement [EL: right] movement. Quite a few books about slavery. But if you say to kids — Where are the fantasy novels? Where are the time-travel stories? Where are the dystopian novels, the books that get kids so excited that they want more? Those are the stories they’re being denied. and those are the stories, in addition to historical fiction, that truly empower and alight the imagination of our kids.

EL: I would like to add that one thing you do to help that change is that you document and share with the publishers the response of children and of young people to the books that do reflect them. You know, because if we base on what the consumer wants, children should be provided more books because they want them. They cannot wait to get enough of what it is that we haven’t written yet.

Byrd: …Are there grants available to authors who write books or want to publish books for the community of color?

ZE: Well, I’m going to Senegal in a week because I got a grant through my college, the Bureau of Manhattan Community College.

But it’s very difficult. Arts grants — you know in this economy, the arts have really taken a hit. So, getting grants is really difficult

First Book is an organization that promotes literacy and tries to give books to children in low-income communities. They just gave two major grants, half a million dollars each, and one of them went to Lee and Low a small, independent, multicultural publisher. So there are some people out there who are committed to seeing more of these books.

Unfortunately, many of these organizations and bookstores are not open to self-published authors, and self-publishing is one of the main ways that authors of color are getting their books into the hands of kids.

Byrd: Enid, I wanted to give you an opportunity to make a final comment on this.

EL: I want to just urge all listeners to get the books that are at Busboys and Poets and also note what it is that children and young people say when they receive these books. And use their power as consumers to get more books funded, more books published, more books out.

Because we can speak.

And, you know, we cannot just simply allow folks to have the floor by saying, “oh well, they don’t want the books.” We change it by doing the kind of thing we’re talking about here: of publicizing, of bringing to light, of showing what the gaps are. And helping people to see how children’s lives are enriched by having the books.

I call books with people of color having bridges to self and others. They
touch the spirit and open the mind to a wider world. And we’re going to keep doing that. And, as I said in my quote to you, “the last thing we’re thinking of doing is dropping dead.” [direct quote here] We’re carrying on.

Byrd: All right. We’re going to have to leave it there. We’ve just plumb run out of time. I’ve gone over my allotted time, and I’m getting all kinds of signals here.

I want to thank you both, Zetta Elliott and Enid Lee, both authors. And I want to thank my earlier guest, Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change.

And I want to thank my earlier guest, Laura Fuchs, who is a teacher at Woodson SHS here in the District of Columbia.

Folks, that’s going to have to do it. Until next Thursday at 11 a.m., have a great week. For Virginia Spatz, this is Thomas Byrd. Peace!

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