This utter lack of diversity is gross. It is inexcusable. And it is really, really embarrassing. Book Expo America is the industry’s flagship event, and the statement it is making on the industry’s behalf is that we believe that what readers–the kind of devoted, passionate readers who fork over thirty dollars to spend a summer Saturday in a convention center–want out of a book event is an all-white, heavily celebrity line-up. (See Kelly’s piece for a bunch of terrific links to pieces that address the problem of diversity in publishing with greater depth.)
Readers deserve better than this. It is not hard to do better than this. The wonderful, diverse list of books being given out by volunteers all over the country today for World Book Night is proof.
So what happens now? Book Expo will likely respond with another apology and promise to do better. But it’s too late. The damage is done. “We’re sorry” is no longer acceptable. It is clear that diversity is not a priority for ReedPop and BEA. Either they are not thinking about it at all, or they are actively choosing against diversity because they believe they can make more money with an all-white line-up. These are not our values at Book Riot, and so we will not be supporting, promoting, participating in, covering, or encouraging our community to attend BookCon. We can’t control ReedPop and BEA’s choices, but we can control this. No diversity = no support.
Maya Angelou famously said, “When you know better, you do better.” Book Expo America and ReedPop should know better. It’s time for them to do better, and to do better from the start.
Sometimes what I learn about myself in my work as a children’s book editor is downright embarrassing and cringe-worthy: that despite my best intentions, my predominantly white upbringing, educational background, and chosen profession have not adequately prepared me to be as racially and culturally sensitive as I would like.
I don’t want to admit that about myself. And I really don’t want to admit it publicly on a diversity-themed website in front of the children’s literature community.
But I’m never going to make progress if I don’t call myself out and invite others I work with to call me out as well. And more to the point, since it’s not all about my personal development here, the books I help make aren’t going to reflect reality or drive change in our society if this important process doesn’t happen.
So let me share three lessons I’ve learned from working with Mitali Perkins, a writer as talented as she is kind and ebullient. Her books are terrific: vibrant characters, exciting and believable plots, natural pacing, clear themes—the whole literary package. Mitali is also a passionate advocate for inclusive literature, and she’s not afraid to let me know, in the nicest way possible, when I get in the way of that goal.
I am autistic.
I remember vividly a time in art school when I mentioned this to a classmate. His immediate reaction: “Ha! I’ve seen autistic people. You’re seriously not autistic.”
It didn’t matter to him that I’d had to drop out of high school the year before, at fourteen, after years of problems directly stemming from my autism. It didn’t matter that I had a diagnosis, or that I fit so many symptoms that my mom and I had laughed reading the list together. No. My classmate had witnessed me at school and deduced: Not Autistic. When he told me that, scoffing, I had to excuse myself to the bathroom and wait several minutes to stop shaking.
[Image: Corinne Duyvis]
Other people have long accepted that I’m autistic—but that doesn’t mean they see it the same way I do. My grandmother has done this. Once, I casually mentioned something or other about being disabled, and she almost seemed to panic. “What? You’re not—you’re not disabled!” I gently tried to explain to her that, actually, I was declared unfit to work, and it significantly impacts my day-to-day life, so …
“Yeah,” she said, “but you can walk!”
I tried to explain it to her further, but she was deeply uncomfortable with the topic, and quickly dismissed it.
Disability can be visible or invisible, debilitating or casual, and it’s impossible to define Once and For All. Definitions inevitably exclude people who want to be included. The opposite also holds true. Sometimes, you’re including people who don’t want to be. Some autistic and Deaf people don’t consider themselves disabled, simply different. Some elderly people who struggle to walk or hear don’t see that as a disability, but simply as a part of getting older. Some chronically or terminally ill people reject being called disabled, as well. Other people don’t consider themselves “disabled enough” to use the term.
Complex discussions regularly take place within the disability community about identity. These discussions deal with topics such as identity policing, internalized ablism, negative associations, appropriation, transablism, and much more. However important these discussions are, my advice to most people is: don’t define or police anyone’s disability status. It’s not the place or business of people who are not a part of the disability community.
Sometimes, however, we’re faced with the need to define disability for pragmatic reasons. For Malinda, it came up when she was looking at the representation of disabled main characters in the Best Fiction for Young Adults lists. For me, it comes up when moderating Disability in Kidlit. Which characters count? Who can contribute? Which conditions do we want to discuss?
When starting Disability in Kidlit, my co-moderator Kody Keplinger and I chose to include all the “obvious” disabilities, but also anything from mental illness to learning disorders to chronic conditions, which people with and without said conditions sometimes argue don’t “count.” We both know people with the above conditions who do identify as disabled, and they often suffer from exactly the kinds of erasure, misrepresentations, tropes, and stereotypes that we want to discuss and dismantle at Disability in Kidlit. A lot of hurt can come from defining people’s disabilities for them—particularly when it comes to conditions that are often excluded as it is. The broader we draw the line, the less chance of that happening.
That doesn’t make the decisions about which books to include on our lists clear-cut. Sometimes it’s easy to exclude a book, for instance when a character has a temporary injury. Other times, it’s trickier. After all, disability is not only defined by a character’s mental or physical condition, but also by society and circumstances.
Take a character who is legally blind, but wears glasses that correct her vision perfectly. She only notices her bad vision when she has to take off her glasses for bed. She probably doesn’t identify as disabled, because despite the need for assistive equipment, her vision causes minimal changes or discrimination in her daily life.
Now put this same woman in an apocalyptic world and smash her glasses. Write her into a fantastical or historical setting where they haven’t developed corrective lenses yet. All of a sudden, she’s blind. She’s disabled. Same character, same disability, different conditions.
What about people with ADD? People may qualify this condition as an issue, a quirk, a developmental disorder—but not necessarily a disability. For me, when I’m in the store and spend ten minutes staring at different kinds of soap and want to cry because I’m incapable of making a decision, or when I’m so caught up in the maelstrom of ADD indecisiveness and autistic obsessiveness that I stay up until 4 a.m. for a week straight to research insurance options or signing pens, and I’m exhausted, and my mind goes on and on and on, and I know I’m wasting time, I’m skipping meals, missing deadlines, ignoring family, but I cannot stop … for me, it’s a disability.
And depression—same thing. Many people with depression don’t identify as disabled. Many others do. What’s the difference? Does it depend on how long their condition lasts—a few months, a few years, a lifetime? Does it depend on how severely it impacts their day-to-day life? On how well their medication or coping mechanisms work for them? On their personal idea of disability, which for many people is a big, scary, and inherently negative concept?
What about someone with a limp that prevents them from climbing or hiking, but never hurts and barely impacts them? (And what about if this person lives in a small mountain village in which climbing and hiking are essential?)
What about a condition which rarely plays up, but is debilitating when it does? What about if someone lives in an idyllic, accessible, ablism-free society, where there is no difference between an inability to walk and an inability to drive? What about something seemingly minor—say, stiff fingers—but being a pianist is this person’s life’s work?
In real life, whenever possible, we can ask whether someone identifies as disabled. In fiction, it’s different.
There are no easy answers. Hopefully, this post addresses some of the complexities and helps people think about disability differently.
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A lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative MG and YA novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Her debut novel OTHERBOUND, a YA fantasy, is out from Amulet Books on June 17, 2014.
Q:Hi Malinda and Cindy, do you know whether anyone has done any number crunching about the diversity of secondary characters? I realise that isn't the point of this project, but I thought if they had you might be aware of it. I have the impression that secondary characters are getting more diverse faster than protagonists, that there is a sort of protagonist glass ceiling, so comparing figures would interest me.
I don’t know if anyone has done this, but in the course of my statistical research I have come to suspect that diversity is often seen in secondary characters. I think most of the bestselling series have characters of color in secondary roles, and there are a ton of gay best friends out there.
I think it’s interesting that you put it as a protagonist glass ceiling — I could totally see it that way. But, again, I haven’t seen anyone analyze secondary characters for diversity. I think it would be a pretty huge project because of a number of uncertainties: What counts as a secondary character? They probably vary in terms of significance to a story line. Do walk-ons count or only major supporting characters? It’s difficult to determine.
This week’s diverse new releases:
The Art of Secrets by James Klise (Algonquin Young Readers)
“In his intriguing second book, Klise (Love Drugged) tells the story of a Pakistani family rebuilding their lives after their apartment is destroyed in a fire set by an arsonist. … Through emails, texts, journal entries, interview transcripts, newspaper clips, and official documents that pull in the perspectives of students, teachers, and others, Klise simultaneously reveals details about what might have transpired while allowing characters’ darker motives—prejudice, envy, greed—to emerge.” — Publishers Weekly
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook Press)
“A thriller that challenges readers’ understanding of the universe. Laureth’s best-selling novelist father, Jack Peak, left for Switzerland to research his latest book, so why did his notebook turn up in New York City? … Laureth books a flight to New York. She also takes her younger brother, Benjamin, not just because she’s in charge of him, but because she needs him: Laureth is blind. … In short, taut chapters, her first-person narration allows readers to experience the intrigue through her abilities and shows her tender relationship with Benjamin.” — Kirkus, starred review
Over the past year or so, I’ve examined diversity in the Publishers Weekly bestsellers (here’s 2012 and here’s 2013) as well as the Best Fiction for Young Adults (here’s 2013, here’s 2014). One list I haven’t looked at until now is the New York Times bestseller lists for young adult books.
My conclusions? There’s nothing really surprising about the diversity on the New York Times bestseller lists for young adult books. They tell the same story that Publishers Weekly does, but with a slightly different sample: There isn’t much diversity.
This is the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of a mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being at the bottom. If it’s not the intangible Market that’s to blame, it’s the writers of color, who maybe don’t have what it takes and don’t submit enough anyway. Read the subtextual coding here – the agent first places the onus of change on the folks with the least institutional power to effect it, then suggests we probably won’t be able to find the time (i.e., lazy) to master the craft.
"The publishing industry looks a lot like these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive."
A young writer that I mentor reached out to me last week. “None of these agents look like me,” she said, “and they don’t represent anyone that looks like me.” She’s wrapping up a final draft of her first novel and I’d told her to research literary agencies to get a feel for what’s out there. “What if they don’t get what I’m doing?”
10 tips on seeing race, culture, and power while reading.