06 July 2013

Inclusivity in All Its Dimensions

In the discussion of “multicultural” children’s books that Lee and Low hosted last month, a couple of the respondents said that in order to publish more books about non-white kids American children’s-book publishing needed to become more inclusive.

For example, Prof. Sarah Park Dalen wrote:

I don’t have evidence for this, but I think that most publishers have not diversified their staff enough, have not trained their staff enough in cultural competency, and are still hesitant to take a chance on new authors. Although they know that diversity continues to be an issue, they maintain that all they’re looking for is a “good story,” but perhaps their criteria are still determined by what they already know and are comfortable with.
And Prof. Jane M. Gangi said:
One theory is that editors are quite often white, and quite often supported by husbands who make more money than they do. We tend to choose books that “mirror” us.
I think publishing has become more ethnically inclusive over the past eighteen years, the period which Lee and Low highlighted. So while more diversity among editors might help, it doesn’t appear to be a big part of the solution. Furthermore, Gangi’s use of the word “husband” highlights another form of homogeneity in children’s publishing.

The British author Jonathan Emmett wrote about that sort of diversity last month in The New Statesman, arguing that (British) children’s publishing is too dominated by female tastes to appeal fully to boys:
Although there are plenty of men such as myself writing and illustrating picture books, the gatekeepers in the world of picture books are overwhelmingly female. It’s predominately women publishers that select picture books for publication, women teachers that choose which books to read in nurseries and infant classrooms and women customers that purchase picture books for reading at home. Women aren’t keeping men out of these gatekeeper roles, the imbalance is there because relatively few men are interested in occupying them, but as a consequence picture books tend to reflect female tastes more than male ones.

Even picture books that are intended to appeal primarily to boys reflect the tastes of the mother or grandmother that will usually be buying them as well as the child they’re bought for. Picture book pirates are less prone to combat than their counterparts in other media, monsters and aliens less frightening, vehicles and machines less technically detailed. Elements of danger and threat are tamed or omitted altogether on the grounds of being unappealing or inappropriate. In short, picture books with boy-friendly themes tend to be cuter and tamer than similarly themed TV shows, films or video games.

I think the failure of picture books to accurately reflect the full range of boys’ tastes is deterring many boys from developing a reading habit.
Emmett’s essay builds off his Cool Not Cute writings. He puts a lot of stock in studies showing that boys and girls have affinities for different types of toys. (Other studies have found that adults often offer a diapered infant different types of toys depending on whether they’ve been told the baby is male or female, so those affinities may not be fully natural.)

The question of gender balance in publishing, especially children’s publishing, arises periodically. Editorial Anonymous discussed it in 2007. Publishers Weekly discussed it about the whole industry in 2010. Robert Lipsyte discussed it in the New York Times in 2011.

It’s hard to deny any of those observations about the people who populate publishing offices. The argument that they therefore unwittingly share a certain outlook that limits their choices of authors, books, or marketing tactics is more debatable, but worthy of examination in both dimensions. But we’re still left with the looming issue of the market.

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