In the ongoing discussion about representations of race in and on children’s books, Colleen Mondor asks in “Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing”:
The cover issue is only one aspect of a much larger problem: why it is acceptable to still believe (and use as a business model) the notion that Caucasian readers will not relate to Kids of Color in general titles? Is this an issue that originates with publishers, or does it lie with “gatekeepers” like librarians, large booksellers, and big-box stores?This analysis appears to be based on the proposition that young “Caucasian readers” will relate to “Kids of Color in general titles” at the same rate that they’ll relate to similar books about other white kids. Therefore, the thinking goes, someone else—adult “publishers” or “gatekeepers” or parents and grandparents—must be making false assumptions about what those kids will enjoy.
I see some evidence for that proposition (e.g., the mainstream success of some kids’ TV shows, surveys showing more prejudices among older adults than among younger). But I don’t see an explanation for why publishers, librarians, or teachers persist in believing something false about kids’ preferences despite seeing sales or circulation figures to the contrary, and despite the fact that publishing and library cultures are predominantly inclusive and progressive (at least on a conscious and public level).
And are those book professionals the most influential tastemakers and gatekeepers? In responding to Mondor’s essay, Liz B. at the Tea Cozy uses the term “mirror” for the attempt to find books whose characters reflect particular readers in every possible outward way; she says, “I see adults more likely to select books that are pure mirror than kids.” This corresponds to observations I quoted from Alison Morris and Elizabeth Bird last month.
In that situation, to complain about a librarian or bookseller lamenting that “they don’t have a ‘community to support such books’” might be missing the real problem: that that librarian or bookseller’s community truly isn’t supporting books about kids of color with their selections, compliments, or money (as in purchases or taxes).
Sadly, in this world we have to consider the possibility that people—even kids—don’t behave the way we wish they would. Some, even many, “Caucasian readers” may enjoy books about “Kids of Color” equally with books about white kids. But as long as some don’t, their numbers can be enough to affect sales or circulation in a noticeable way. That preference doesn’t have to be vocalized, or even conscious, to exist.
People have no difficulty acknowledging that books about boys generally have more appeal for boys (especially at certain ages), and books about girls have more appeal to girls. Lots of folks agree that teenaged boys are turned off by pink covers. Much of the pressure on our field to create more books about kids of color is based on the idea that those titles would hold more appeal for kids of color than yet more books about white kids.
So is it really impossible to imagine that books about white kids have more appeal in the aggregate for white kids? Or is it just uncomfortable? Do we really have evidence that kids are colorblind? Or do we have evidence that they aren’t?
The quoted passage above implies that it’s not “acceptable to still believe” that white kids prefer books about other white kids. But if all the numbers add up that way, it would be a fact, however discomfiting, and we should believe it. Especially since today’s publishing and bookselling corporations are designed to respond to the facts of the market, not to change society.
Mondor’s essay suggests that accepting such a belief would mean accepting that “enticing Caucasians to spend money on books is more important than providing an accurate depiction of America’s multicultural life.” To capitalist publishing and bookselling corporations, enticing anyone to spend more money on books is more important than providing an accurate depiction of anything. That’s why there are so many books about vampires, who really aren’t part of an accurate depiction of America.
The job of enticing people to open up to other sorts of books falls on people and institutions that aren’t set up to make profits: schools, libraries, families, neighborhoods, and so on. Individuals within corporations can act on their own tastes and values, but they have less freedom. And, quite possibly, less influence.