A little over a year ago, I, along with four of my colleagues in the kid-lit industry, joined together to form The Brown Bookshelf – an online community charged with highlighting both established and up-and-coming African-American children’s and YA authors and illustrators. Our 2008 – 28 Days Later Campaign was a huge success, and I’m happy to announce that we’re now accepting submissions and nominations for 28 Days Later – 2009.
As our new campaign began to ramp up, I found myself thinking a lot about the role of The Brown Bookshelf. Were we making enough of an impact? What additional programs should we be pushing? Had we outgrown our usefulness?
As I contemplated these and many other questions, I was directed to a Publishers Weekly essay by Denene Millner, co-author of the “Hotlanta” series. In the essay, Millner notes the dearth of books for African-American teens, stating, “Very few prolific authors have enjoyed consistent, successful careers writing about black teen life, and only a handful of publishing houses have dedicated their resources to publishing black teen books. And once those books are released, good luck finding them in bookstores or reviewed in the media.” Specifically, Millner points out the gluttony of “street fiction” on bookshelves, and implores publishing houses to publish “more books about and for African-American teens, and not tomes about slavery, the ghetto and growing up in impossible conditions. I’m talking books with modern, hip stylings and everyday stories that address teen issues in a way that speaks to the audience in their own language.”
I’ve stated before my surprise, and disappointment, when teens shout out that their favorite authors are Zane and Eric Jerome Dickey. Truthfully, Zane and Eric Jerome Dickey may be okay for some students. However, I’d love to go into a school one day and hear a teen say that his or her favorite author is Coe Booth or Rita Williams-Garcia or L. Divine.
And, I think this can happen, because teens that read novels by these authors love their books. The key is—how do we get these books into the hands of the readers? Libraries are our primary lifeline to these students, but is there another way to reach these readers? Can we—authors, publishers, booksellers, and parents—do more?
But as Millner’s essay reminded me, sometimes it’s not just the end reader that we need to support. Milliner states:
“…I’m not as confident about what can be done to improve the morale of authors like me, who are weary from the mess that has become black fiction. I can’t tell you how painful it is to have my books—particularly a teen book—dismissed as street fiction because the cover features black girls.”
African-American authors are a dying breed, a breed which I fear may become extinct if we don’t do a better job of supporting both established and emerging talent. That’s why 28 Days Later is so important. We need books not just for African-American children and teens, but we need books—well-written, diverse books— written and illustrated by African Americans.
So please, drop by the site today and nominate an author or illustrator. And remember: well-written, entertaining books aren’t just a benefit for certain ethnic groups. They’re a benefit to the entire industry. And most importantly, good, well-written, diverse books provide the greatest benefits to our end users—children and teens all across the world.