The kidlit world is currently abuzz with many loud, strong, and unified voices crying out, “WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS!” The cry has been made before, but this time there appears to be an organized activism accompanying the noise.
In that same activist spirit, we at The Brown Bookshelf reached out to a variety of experienced individuals involved in the creation of children’s books written and/or illustrated by African Americans and asked them to share the wisdom they have attained as they’ve worked to make sure these books not only make it to publication, but also reach the widest audience possible.
Today, on the first day of Children’s Book Week, The Brown Bookshelf adds our contribution to the movement via a series called MAKING OUR OWN MARKET. We begin with the voices of Wade and Cheryl Hudson, founders and publishers of Just Us Books, in a guest post entitled, Making A Difference Through Publishing.
Making a Difference Through Publishing
by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson
From May1-3, 2014 in response to the #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS campaign, Wade Hudson posted this:
“The lack of diversity in children’s books is a problem that has been around for decades. Every few years or so, someone issues a clarion call for change. But too often, very little happens other than a few weeks of heated discussions and written exchanges. Then it’s back to business as usual. Perhaps now, we will REALLY do something about the problem. Not only does the industry need to publish more children’s books that reflect our nation’s diversity, the diverse books that ARE being published need to be supported. We all must be involved in this important cause—book creators, educators, librarians, booksellers, reviewers, and of course, parents.”
We founded Just Us Books, Inc., in 1988 because we recognized how crucial it was to have books in the body of literature for children that reflected our nation’s diversity. We had already begun to address this need by writing stories and working as an art editor and art director for educational publishers. But this need became more personal when we became parents.
Just Us Books really began as a self-publishing effort. We were the authors of the first few titles. But early on we began to be recognized as a viable children’s publishing company and important to institution building in the Black community. Not only could we tell and share our own stories, but we owned and operated an institution, a business that would bring more diverse titles to the marketplace—from acquiring manuscripts, publishing them as books, getting the books to the marketplace to lifting up the importance reading.
In 2004, we started the imprint SANKOFA Books to bring classic Black-interest children’s books back into print. In 2009, with our children, Katura and Stephan, we introduced MARIMBA Books, a multicultural press.
After more than 25 years of operating Just Us Books, we remain resolute in continuing our mission to publish books for children that are more representative of who we are as a nation. But it is also clear that after 25 years of publishing (along with the efforts of other independent publishers such as Lee & Low, Arte Publico, Cinco Puntos Press, Polychrome Press and others which are no longer in operation, as well as larger publishers) that much more still needs to be done.
From a publisher’s perspective, we know how important these books are! We have seen the faces of African-American children light up when they see the African-American children on the cover of Bright Eyes, Brown Skin. We know that there are black youngsters who have become more interested in reading after having been introduced to books in the Kid Caramel series or the NEATE series. Many children have been engaged by the relatable story and characters in The Secret Olivia Told Me.
Children of color need books that offer them the opportunity to see themselves reflected in books. White children—all children really—need to be exposed to books that help them see the world as it really is, peopled by different ethnic, gendered, cultural and racial groups, people with whom they must interact. Children’s books are great vehicles for helping children understand their communities and their world. And they can be fun and entertaining.
Here are a few other reasons why diverse books are important:
1. A more diverse body of children’s literature confirms that we live in a global village and that the world is pluralistic and made up of many different kinds of people.
2. They help to develop self-esteem in all children through inclusion rather than exclusion.
3. They provide knowledge and information about people from all parts of the world.
4. Diverse books can change the way children and young people look at their own particular society and the world by offering varying perspectives or different ways of viewing the same situations.
5. They can promote/develop an appreciation for diversity in all of its facets.
6. They can help children think critically and to ask questions.
7. Like all literature, multicultural titles can provide enjoyment and appreciation for unity and variety in the human experience.
8. They can reflect the cultural diversity within the classroom and community
9. They can provide positive role models.
10. They can create a bridge between student’s real-life experiences and intellectual learning.
The #WENEEDMOREDIVERSEBOOKS social media buzz has been great for creating awareness. But creating awareness has happened before. In a September 11, 1965 edition of the Saturday Review, librarian Nancy Larrick highlighted the issue in an article titled “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, addressed it in “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” originally published in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, no. 3. Summer 1990. Walter Dean Myers, whose recent article in the New York Times has generated heated discussion, wrote about the lack of diversity in children’s books in a November 9, 1986 article titled, “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry,” also published in the New York Times. Many others have added their voices to the clarion call for more books that reflect our diversity.
It is crucial that these discussions translate into concrete actions that really make a difference in advancing the cause of a more diverse offering of books for children and young adults. We believe this time that will happen.
We would like to share a few things that all of us can do to help advance the cause of equity and inclusion in our body of children’s literature.
“Imagine if we all made a year-round commitment to:
1. Each year, introduce 10 different children’s books that reflect our nation’s diversity to educators, librarians, bookstore managers, and parents—anyone who has the influence and/or power to help increase the number of these diverse books within the body of children’s literature.
2. Purchase at least 5 of these books to share with children other than our own— whether they are our neighbors’, friends’ or co-workers’ children; children at our places of worship or local youth organizations; or for donation to other organizations in our communities.
3. Give at least 2 or 3 of these books to children who might not normally have diverse books in their homes.
4. Make a special effort to buy some of these books from independent publishers, bookstores and vendors—particularly those operated by people of color.
5. Lift up the importance of having books that reflect our nation’s diversity at every opportunity we have—not just within our circles but outside our ‘diverse circles’ too.”
Together, we can produce and get more diverse books into the hands of as many people as possible. They are sorely needed in a country that has become more polarized and whose schools, in too many cities and towns, remain extremely segregated.