A Measure of Success

paula_thumb2.jpgThere are two measures of success.  You know you’ve made it when Saturday Night Live parodies you in a skit or when dissenting opinions go out over the blogosphere.

The Brown Bookshelf has “arrived”!

No, neither Beyonce or Justin Timberlake has sang a hilarious ode to our venture, but there has been quite a bit of lively (healthy) discussion over at Finding Wonderland.

In my optimistic edging toward naive outlook, I never gave thought to there being any issues surrounding an initiative whose sole goal is to spotlight books.

I forgot that anything revolved around race will always draw scrutiny. In this case, at the heart of the discussion is the name “Brown” bookshelf.

I think, had we named this group, The Black Bookshelf, race would have still be an issue, but probably from another angle.  However, by choosing “Brown” the issue has become that we’re excluding. 

A few questions, at hand, are:

How does someone qualify to be featured? Are they still up for consideration if they’re bi-racial – African American and some other race? How about if they’re among the other definitions of brown – which basically includes any ethnicity except white? Oh and by the way how is white defined?

There’s some great discussion about “what is white?” at the Finding Neverland site. 

As to the other questions – I won’t speak on behalf of the group on the point of how brown is brown. We all have our thoughts. But for me, each of those questions go deeper into race than I ever intended the initiative to.

Nonetheless, they’re legit questions. The very real issue of claiming the descriptor of Brown, while primarily focusing on African American authors does bring up valid and worrisome points.

However, I see a chance to make lemonade out of these lemons. Allow me to break it down, the way it was initially conceived:

The point of The Brown Bookshelf is to highlight 28 African American children authors under the radar.  Why? Because there’s a need to give these books a higher profile among parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers, so they can help readers find them.

This is our way adding our shoulder to the solution grindstone.

Why only African American?

Because our membership is African American and we’ve all felt the pinch of flying under the radar.

As to how “brown” is brown? Well, we’re not going to ask the selected authors for a DNA test or a “Black” card as proof of their racial identity. Most of these authors are easily identified by their book’s content and primary research of a bio and photo.

But, we narrowed our focus to African Americans (be they interracial or not) because, for good, bad or indifferent, the playing field is not yet level.  Children books by black authors isn’t even 10% of the whole. Which means books by other brown authors is likely even less.

In my eyes, that means the Brown Bookshelf has potential to evolve and expand.  Ta-daaa, lemonade!

One day maybe our membership may expand to include  Latino, Indian or Middle Eastern authors, thus expanding our focus. Or we may choose to increase the books spotlighted, to include those with a culturally-relevant theme, no matter the race of the author.

The prospect of doing that, one day, is real and based on the stats, necessary.

One last thing – one of the comments within the Finding Wonderland discussion stated that it was scary to think that The Brown Bookshelf may become a go-to source for purchasing for libraries and schools.

Why? Why is that scary?

The alternative is that the books go undiscovered and either don’t end up in the libraries or schools at all or end up there in much lower quantities than “mainstream” books. In other words, our current state.

Schools and libraries often look to ALA award winners to purchase. But, there’s only one Coretta Scott King award a year. One.

Tell me, outside of that, what source should they rely on (besides the publisher) to deem which books they’d like to carry?

BBS has solicited submissions from the public, we’ve partnered with other groups with literary initiatives and our membership is scouring the shelves for candiates. We’re not in the pocket of any publisher. We’re focused on traditionally published books to cut down on the question of quality. It’s an open process with no strings attached.

Gatekeepers use multiple sources to determine a book’s acquisition worthiness. If BBS can become one of those sources, I see no downside to that at all.

We could continue to talk about what The Brown Bookshelf is lacking. What we could have done better this first time out. But as we do, publishing will remain the same. Children authors of color will continue to be under represented and gatekeepers seeking our books will continue to lean towards the higher profile, more noticeable award-winning books.

It’s up to us, the readers and writers, to press on.  So, please continue to submit names. The submission window closes December 1st.

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