A few weeks ago, I was in Indianapolis and had a random conversation with a stranger that led to talking about his young son and his summer reading habits. Dad wanted Jr. to read, Jr. didn’t want to read. My message to him was what I’d give any parent.
- It’s summer. Let him read what he’ll enjoy.
- He’ll read more if he can find books that relate to him.
Dad was happy to hear this and he wanted to get books into his son’s hands that he would indeed read but, he wasn’t sure how to find books that a African American preteen male would enjoy. He asked if I knew any black librarians in Kokomo, a place he could send his son to get the books he wants. I suggested he go to libraries that serve the black community, relying on my librarian brothers and sisters there to be able to him young readers find books to which they can relate. I’m relying on librarians to be advocates rather than gatekeepers. But, shouldn’t any children’s librarian be able to help this parent?
I realized in all our talk about the need for diverse books, in all the actions we take and all the planning we do that we’re still talking about this with each other. The message, that we need more diverse books, and why we need them is directed at those who work inside kidlit and doesn’t include the voice of parents or children.
It seems that the book world has always been a rather insular place that rarely looks to readers to find out where their interests lie with regards to how they find out about books or what they’d really like to read.
For one thing, publishers (until very recently) didn’t “touch” consumers. Their interaction was with intermediaries who did. The focus for publishers was on the trade, not the reader, and the trade was “known” without research. To the extent that research was necessary, it was accomplished by phone calls to key players in the trade. The national chain buyer’s opinion of the market was the market research that mattered. If the publisher “knew different”, it wouldn’t do them any good if the gatekeeper wouldn’t allow the publisher’s books on his shelves.
This same article goes on to discuss how marketing information is so easily available thanks largely to online networking, but that publishes don’t know how to mine it.
As they continue to struggle to redefine their own business practices, the call for more diversity in what they publish is probably similar to the noise of mosquitos buzzing in their ears. Would it make a difference if we banded with those outside publishing to persist louder than a mosquito?
If children and parents knew to ask for more books in libraries and bookstores how high up would their voices be heard? No, I don’t believe they know that asking will make a difference. Think of how this marketing is done, how the decision making has been top down and consumers don’t always feel empowered with regard to books.
I was truly glad to see Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund write
Let’s demand and support beautiful high-quality books that will allow all children to experience bookjoy as they see themselves and all they have in common with others in a multiracial, multicultural, democratic society. And let’s make sure we teach history that is true. Only the truth can set us free.
Zetta Elliott recently following up on a story about Jet Blue’s Soar With Reading Program. They, like BarberShop Books, and other corporate sponsored reading programs mean well, but unless they understand the urgency of providing young readers with books they can relate, they will simply increase the demand for the status quo. Good intentions, you know?
We have to keep demanding the books for our children, the diverse books that represent who they are and who they are becoming but in looking for allies, perhaps it’s time to look outside the world of publishing. Talk to teachers and friends. Try a chatting on FB or Twitter with a group you don’t typical discuss books.