03 February 2010

What’s Acceptable to Believe about Kids’ Reading Choices?

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.


Rachel Stark said...

I'm so glad you pointed this out. So far this concept's largely being ignored in this whole discussion (I just blogged about it here: http://trac-changes.blogspot.com/2010/02/we-arent-as-pretty-or-interesting-why.html).

There probably is some conservatism from the gatekeepers houses that really is affecting the whitewashing of covers. After all, with the economy looking bad and aspects of the book industry looking even worse, publishers aren't going to take risks if they're not sure what readers will buy.

But there's also probably a reason they're not sure: because some prejudice still exists in readers, too. If readers believe white is the default experience, books will reflect that -- as we've seen.

Thanks for the post!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comment. I don’t doubt that publishing employees are, on average, whiter, richer, and more coastal than Americans as a whole, and that such a shared background affects their assumptions and values.

However, one aspect of that shared culture is, I think, more concern about inclusiveness than in the average American workplace. Most publishers are in New York and San Francisco, after all!

That situation probably does give rise to an unconscious ignorance, as in an assumption that a romantic heroine would be light-skinned unless repeatedly described otherwise (Magic Under Glass).

However, editors and other “gatekeepers” are probably more concerned about addressing such problems than most readers. At any age, we pick out what looks interesting on a shelf.

I agree that currently “publishers aren't going to take risks if they're not sure what readers will buy.” But that brings it back to the marketplace, and what books families are actually picking. If readers had been buying a series about a young African wizard rather than a British one, publishing corporations would be pulling back to more books about African wizards.

Colleen said...

You wrote you wanted more evidence that Caucasian kids would relate to Kids of Color; I guess I was saying that a foregone conclusion has been found here - as long as fewer books are pubbed and marketed with Kids of Color, everyone is always going to buy fewer books about Kids of Color. As to exceptions - I'd point to Lisa Yee, Gene Yang, Sherman Alexie etc off the top of my head.

I do think it's much tougher for Af American authors/characters because they are more often viewed as "curriculum titles".

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment, Colleen. You’re describing a vicious circle: fewer books about children of color published mean fewer sold, meaning fewer published, and so on.

I see three weaknesses with that analysis. First, the CCBC figures indicate that the number of children’s books about and/or by people of color is slowly going up.

Second, if kids choose books about children of color at the same rate as other books, then each title should sell about the same as other titles in the same category, and publishers and booksellers shouldn’t see a difference in those numbers or kids’ behavior.

Third, it’s very difficult to identify where a vicious circle begins, or the strongest factors behind it. But given the choices of (a) structural racism in America, or (b) the choices of a couple hundred underpaid, overeducated people working for book companies in New York, I’m inclined to start with (a).

I was pleased to see in your article that Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius had sold so well. (I doubt the other titles listed after it have enjoyed the same level of sales.) How do those sales compare to comparable books about white girls? And might the popularity of that book reflect our society’s attitudes about Asian-Americans compared to other ethnic groups classified as non-white?

Colleen said...

One element not being discussed here is marketing dollars or manner in which a book is marketed. To get a solid answer you would need to take a handful of similar titles (say YA mysteries - all comparable quality) and then have them be marketed with the same level of enthusiasm to the same places in the same ways. Each with a protag of different race. Then see how they do.

That kind of controlled experiment isn't possible obviously but you get my point. I don't have the sales figures on the other books right now (and they don't seem to be obvious online - alas). I know Alexie was on the NYT bestseller list for many weeks and is on amazon's bestseller list. But again - then you would need to compare it directly with other similar Caucasian titles marketed in a similar manner to see if anything is proven about readership.

I guess you would need to set a list to quantitatively answer this question. Compare marketing figures to sales figures for similar books with protagonists of different races by authors of comparable name recognition.

Please don't make me run out and do this right now. (ha)

Putney Plumber said...

I feel that kids nowadays will be able to relate to kids who are colured

Zetta said...

I'm a black author who was interviewed for Colleen's article, and I can't for the life of me understand why you acknowledge that structural racism exists, yet refuse to admit that gatekeepers help to shape and sustain those structures. I get very tired of people saying, "That's just the way it is," as though the status quo is something organic and natural and inevitable--our society functions with so much inequality b/c it was DESIGNED to work that way. Colleen posted a lengthy quote of mine in her latest blog post, so I'm not going to repeat everything here. But a librarian who lives in an all-white community DOES have an ethical obligation to introduce her patrons to people who are not physically represented within the community. And a librarian who's willing to do that CAN'T if publishers keep putting out Harriet Tubman books for Black History Month and very little else. It's not an either/or situation--it's complex, layered, but always, always CONSTRUCTED. I don't doubt that many white kids honestly don't want to read about a black kid in a book. But that rejection is *learned* behavior, and more accepting attitudes can be learned IF they are modeled by adults in that child's universe. And just b/c white editors live in San Francisco and NYC doesn't mean they aren't upholding institutional racism--are you kidding me? Markets are shaped. Developed. They are not organic or "pre-existing." Teens aren't born with an inherent love of vampires. Tastes are nurtured and if you're savvy enough, you CAN develop new tastes in teen readers. And in my opinion, you SHOULD. and PLEASE do not even TRY to suggest publishers are "making progress" b/c 90 black authors got published in 2008--out of *FIVE THOUSAND*!

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right, we would need to consider marketing expenditures, at least relatively, and it’s tough to find those figures. To be truly fair, we’d have to compare expenditures before laydown, not after a book starts to get reviews and awards.

Even then, we’d have the problem that no two books are the same. Alexie was an established but not bestselling author for adults before Absolutely True Diary…, for example. He was writing about a boy in a field in which most books are about girls.

As I’ve written in the past, publishers’ marketing budgets are piddling compared to what other companies spend on new products. Alexie’s movie Smoke Signals was an indie release with a limited marketing budget, and it nevertheless probably got more advertising than all of his books combined. Most of publishers’ marketing money is aimed at booksellers and “gatekeepers,” not young readers, so its effect on kids’ choices is probably small.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comment, Zetta Elliot, but I wish you’d taken more care in reading and characterizing my remarks.

I don’t “refuse to admit that gatekeepers help to shape and sustain those [racist] structures.” I said that compared to overall American culture “publishing and library cultures are predominantly inclusive and progressive (at least on a conscious and public level).” That allows for unconscious and even conscious but private maintenance of racist structures. And if you were to show me evidence of those unspecified “gatekeepers” consciously and publicly sustaining racist structures, then that would change my impression.

You write, “a librarian who lives in an all-white community DOES have an ethical obligation to introduce her patrons to people who are not physically represented within the community.” I agree, which is why I closed by writing, “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.”

But I hope you won’t heap the most blame in that situation on a librarian who’s found it hard to interest her patrons in books about other sorts of people. As I wrote, that seems to be “missing the real problem”—those patrons’ prejudices and narrow interests.

Unlike some people in this public discussion, you’re willing to state that “many white kids honestly don't want to read about a black kid in a book.” We’re in agreement that “that rejection is *learned* behavior, and more accepting attitudes can be learned IF they are modeled by adults in that child's universe.”

So which adults wield the most influence on a child in that universe? A librarian the child might see once a week? A bookseller the child might see once a month? A book editor the child doesn’t see at all? Or the child’s parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, etc.?

For book people like us to complain about editors and librarians is like a man looking for his keys under a street lamp, not because he dropped them there but because the light’s better.


J. L. Bell said...

(continued on Zetta Elliot’s comment)

You wrote, “And just b/c white editors live in San Francisco and NYC doesn't mean they aren't upholding institutional racism--are you kidding me?” I didn’t write that, so of course I’m not kidding you. I wrote that those editors work in a culture that treats inclusiveness as a positive value, especially compared to our overall society. The main reasons why “many white kids honestly don't want to read about a black kid” don’t rest in an office in New York or San Francisco, but rather in those kids’ homes and neighborhoods.

You’re using the term “institutional racism,” which is defined in different ways. I use that term for racial discrimination instituted in formal laws or rules. I use “structural racism” for racial discrimination embedded in economic inheritances, long-standing customs, and individual prejudices—informal and/or indirect inequalities that are often harder to identify and root out. I don’t see much institutional racism in publishing today, but I see a lot of structural racism across our society which affects corporate publishing.

You wrote, “Markets are shaped. Developed. They are not organic or ‘pre-existing.’" It makes no sense to me to say that markets aren’t “pre-existing.” Every new book comes out into an environment in which readers already have tastes, interests, means, free time, and all the other factors that come into book choices.

As I’ve written many times, book publishers don’t have the money or influence to “shape” markets to their liking. Indeed, most companies don’t. They survive by responding to the desires of potential customers, trying to attract attention and nudging them where they can. Otherwise, every product launch would be a success.

You write, “Teens aren't born with an inherent love of vampires.” Actually, many analyses of the Twilight series have discussed the inherent psychosexual appeal of vampires. Those books played off our culture’s pre-existing images and associations. American teens’ interest in vampires didn’t suddenly spring to life because Little, Brown spent a little advertising money.

You write, “PLEASE do not even TRY to suggest publishers are ‘making progress’ b/c 90 black authors got published in 2008--out of *FIVE THOUSAND*!”

I’m not sure what the quotation marks in your statement indicate because the words “making progress” don’t appear in my posting or my comments. I pointed out that the CCBC has found a slow rise in the number of children’s books by or about blacks. If you want to debate that fact, we can look at the numbers. If you want to argue that those numbers don’t represent enough progress, then you’ll have to find someone who’ll disagree with you about that. I never have.

Colleen said...

I can't believe we are arguing about this JL because I think everyone agrees that diversity is good. Can we just stop - all of us. Stop arguing here. Stop arguing at my site.

It's not helping, at least in my opinion.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t believe in shutting down discussions simply because they’re difficult, but I also don’t think anyone should be required to participate in discussions they don’t want to. So I appreciate your work on this issue, your postings, and your comments here, and I wish you the best with your other writing.

I agree that basically everyone in the children’s-lit blogosphere believes in diversity, inclusiveness, respect for others, and similar values. I think those values also dominate mainstream American publishing, bookselling, libraries, education, and related fields.

However, I also fear that:
a) not everyone in America shares those values, and that affects the consumption of books as well as other entertainment.
b) even when people do share those values consciously, they may not always act on them when seeking entertainment.
c) even when people do share those values consciously, they may not always act on them when creating or distributing entertainment for others.

When we focus on race-based assumptions or blind spots within the book field, I think we end up dealing only with problem c). While in my experience, having worked as an editor in a trade publishing house, I think b) is much more significant.

Jodie said...

You're talking a bit about how parents may have shaped kids world views which I think makes sense, but if you go back to who shaped those parents views (presumably you think the biggest impact was their parents?), who shaped their parents views...It would seem this is a never ending cycle if a racist view passed down by parents through the generations (and originally formed way back in the day in the middle of a much more openly racist majority society) can be seen as the biggest factor in the development of a teenagers views on race. How do you think anyone breaks the cycle - do they have to come from a family with a pre-existing progressive background?

I'm also not convinced at all that a parent is the most influential factor in passing on these views, especially when you consider the rebellious way that many teenagers approach their parents views and react against them to provoke and to form a seperate identity.

J. L. Bell said...

Parents are influential, but so are peers, neighborhoods, communities, places of worship (for some families), and other institutions. I don’t doubt the mass media (i.e., movies, TV, music, fashion advertising, etc.) has an influence as well, as do educators of various kinds, including librarians. But I think the biggest influences are the people closest to children for the most time.

I think history shows that American culture made a major move away from outright racism, and then toward racial inclusion, over the 1900s. We can see the effects of that in Hollywood movies, for example, but those artifacts are the outward signs of an inward change in many people’s thinking—discarding old, harmful ideas and adopting new ones. The two World Wars and the civil rights movements were major forces in those changes. So I don’t think values are maintained and transmitted unchanged over the decades.

I’m more dubious about the model of teens choosing their values in opposition to their parents. I think that meme of adolescent rebellion took hold during the “generation gap” 1960s, but sociologists have found that most Americans generally adopt the religion, political leaning, etc. of their parents.

While wishing there were hard evidence, I suspect that young readers today are a bit more open to books about “other” types of kids than in the past, and that that accounts for the bit more titles of that sort, their somewhat higher sales, etc. But I don’t think we’re yet at a colorblind parity.

Anonymous said...

As a sales rep I was eligible for a bonus if I reached certain net goals every year. As Wayne Gretzky says, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take (and he didn't even know the abuse of an editorial staff when one can't get a book into an account). Accordingly, I had no reason not to fight for every title on my list, regardless of whether it was about minority characters or not. However, for my buyers at the chains, they are evaluated on their sell-through and often their budget / open to buy is tied up in how well they are able to predict how books will sell. I wish I could say it is all a self-fulfilling prophecy but I've seen lots of great books just sit on the shelves (making me and the buyer look bad to our respective bosses) and then get sent back to the publisher (at which point the buyer looks good and I look bad).

I read several books a week as an adult just as I did as a child but I am a much more adventurous reader now, partly because of being in a book group. I would probably avoid books about Third World Countries without my college friends prodding me. I suggest that teachers are the ones who can really make a difference as to what children are reading and whether they are trying new genres. Not to be facetious but I remember my 4th grade teacher introducing me to the Black Stallion but not to any black characters!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing your experience at selling them books!