Seattle's Child

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Amplified: Race in kids' books

Opinion: A troubling trend with race and kids’ books

Some covers hide whether author is truly a BIPOC voice.

I am the head children’s buyer for Third Place Books, and my 21 years in the bookstore industry have provided me an opportunity to shed light on a pervasive problem in the children’s publishing industry.

This past June, I published an open letter addressing the lack of racial transparency in children’s literature because I am tired of seeing publishers attempting to profit off of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) tokenism.

I have been heartened by the recent callouts over the treatment of BIPOC authors in the publishing industry.

Consumers are thinking critically over the books they select and how they can support BIPOC authors and illustrators in children’s literature by purchasing these books. All of this is exciting, and my hope is that as people become more critical and outspoken of the publishing industry, we will see real and lasting change for a more equal and diverse media world.

While this movement is encouraging to see, my position as a buyer has exposed a troubling trend. I have seen an increase in books with diverse main characters being published, but a large portion of these works are not written or illustrated by BIPOC authors. This would not feel so egregious if I did not have to work so hard to find out that the authors of these books with BIPOC main characters are not BIPOC voices.

I have seen these publishers pointedly leave author information off book jackets and publisher catalogs in order to mislead the customer into thinking that they are supporting BIPOC authorship.

Furthermore, publishers will put a Black child on the cover of generic non-characterized children’s book, oftentimes illustrated by a white illustrator, in an effort to pander. This practice is especially prevalent in the categories of illustrated, graded and early chapter books.

This duplicitous practice inspired me to write an open letter on racial transparency in children’s publishing. This letter details this practice in a more expansive way and is available to read on change.org.

In this way, I am hoping to use my voice and my privileged position to start a conversation on an overlooked part of the book industry. For the time being, it does fall on us to do our own research to make sure we are only supporting the positive change we want to see in the world. 

I think that whether non-BIPOC authors should or should not write about the BIPOC experience is a separate conversation. One can make the argument that with proper research and support, anyone can write about anything competently, but I think that too much pain and suffering has been rendered that this “logical” approach will not lead to real healing and the softening of racial divisions.

Regardless, if there is an effort to hide exactly who wrote a book, clearly someone along the editing food chain sees a problem.

There is still a long road to real equality in the literary universe, let alone the rest of the world. I hope that my words help with starting conversations on how we can be more conscious consumers.

Link to Rene’s petition: http://chng.it/DsnhRVb8

 

About the Author

Rene Holderman

Rene Holderman is a buyer at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.