In Search of Multi-Ethnic Books

Children's literature about different cultures and races is not easy to find on US bookshelves

GAIL WILLETT felt invisible eight years ago, when she ventured out looking for multi-ethnic books for her children. She was sure that she would come home with armloads. ``I ran up to Harvard Square,'' she recalls. ``I came home with nothing.'' Ms. Willett is black. Frustrated by her fruitless search, she suspected there were others who felt the same way and shortly thereafter started a mail-order book business that specializes in books about children of color. Her business thrived, and today Savanna Books occupies a cozy storefront in Cambridge's busy Central Square.

On a cold and rainy winter afternoon, the store offers a pleasant haven to a steady stream of patrons.

A rocking chair by the window invites a leisurely browse. The small room is literally bursting with books - books about blacks, about Asians, about Hispanics, and about Native Americans. To a day-tripper from the suburbs, where bookstores cater to a largely white clientele and multi-ethnic titles are for the most part absent from the shelves, the variety is an eye-opener. It also begs the question, why aren't more of these books finding their way into the mainstream?

Broad audience

Part of the problem, says Candy Dawson Boyd, an associate professor of education at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., is the misperception that multi-ethnic books only have value for members of one particular cultural group.

As a black author, she says, ``I'm tired of going to conventions and having white [librarians, teachers, principals, etc.] look at my books and say, `Oh, I know a little black girl who would like this,' ... or, `We don't need your books, we don't need your stories.'''

Ms. Boyd, whose well-received books for young adults include ``Circle of Gold'' and ``Charlie Pippin,'' finds such attitudes infuriating. She says the majority of children who read her books happen to be white.

The point is, says Boyd, ``black kids do worry about whether or not they're going to pass long division ... and they do worry if they have two friends who don't like each other, and they do think their mother loves their brother better. All of these are valid human issues....''

Another part of the problem, as a number of children's librarians readily point out, is that there just aren't that many multi-ethnic titles out there to choose from - especially when compared with the total number of children's books in print.

Supply and demand

Elizabeth Taylor, head of Youth Materials Selection at the Chicago Public Library, notes that ``usually when you're looking at books [on the black experience] you come up with the same authors and the same illustrators, and these are people who are established in the field now. Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, [Patricia and Fredrick] McKissack, Joyce Hansen, Jerry Pinckney....''

Annie Lee Carroll, children's librarian at the Woodson Regional Library in Chicago, confirms this, adding ``The publishers are saying there's no demand for this any more. ... During the '60s when there was federal money available, they all suddenly saw that there was a demand and began to publish [books on the black experience]. But when the federal money dried up and the national atmosphere changed, they stopped publishing again....''

Three years ago, Walter Dean Myers, a gifted black author whose young adult titles have garnered numerous major awards, wrote a sobering essay in the New York Times in which he noted the steady decline in the number of multi-ethnic books in print since the '70s. By the mid-'80s, he said, for every 100 children's books published, there was only one on the black experience.

When contacted recently and asked if he felt that things had improved since then, Myers replied ``not that much.'' He says he does feel encouraged, however, by ``some young people coming up, all of a sudden,'' in the field.

Publishers' role

``For quite some time we've been very sensitive to the need for multi-ethnic books, and the fact that people respond to them,'' says Dorothy Briley, editor-in-chief and publisher of Clarion Books and longtime editor for the late John Steptoe, a celebrated black author and illustrator.

``It is not a problem for us to publish multi-ethnic books. That is a myth that I think is about time to put to its grave.

``We don't see as many new people as we would like,'' she adds. ``We try as best we can to put the word out that we're receptive.... Most lists have some [multi-ethnic] representation, and we'd like to have more.''

She points out however, that as a rule, publishers aren't out ``beating the bushes trying to get manuscripts and illustrations out of people. ... It's just not that kind of industry and never has been.''

Myers agrees, although he sees one area where publishers could and should be encouraging multi-ethnic authors: nonfiction.

``Traditionally we have not been solicited to do other kinds of writing [than books about the black experience],'' he explains. ``This is [one reason] why there aren't as many black and Hispanic authors as there should be. ... If you look at the amount of books done by black authors in nonfiction on nonblack subjects, it's almost nonexistent. Also, if you approach a publisher as a black author and you say you'd like to do a story - even fiction - which is not about black life, you're not as apt to get the contract. So that's a problem. That's where publishers could help.''

Mrs. Carroll points to another area that the publishing industry should watch. ``I'm seeing stereotypical images creeping back in - both in pictures and words - that we thought we had finally laid to rest,'' she says, citing several recent young adult novels that contain material she feels is demeaning. ``I just can't see black children being inspired by these things they're reading now. Nor can I see white children getting an accurate picture. I think it's a disservice to everybody to write these kinds of books.''

Responsibility for improvement

What will the '90s bring?

As far as expanding the pool of multi-ethnic authors, Myers feels strongly that a large part of the responsibility for improvement lies within the black and other multi-ethnic communities as a whole.

``Publishers are not cultural institutions,'' he says. ``Publishing is a business, and it's going to follow the marketplace. Inasmuch as African-Americans have not been fantastic book buyers, there's a problem. ... The obligation is on the marketplace.''

Myers points to two recent national trends that give him hope that the market may, in fact, pick up. ``The concept of whole language in the schools'' is one area he's particularly bullish on. This approach, which incorporates trade books into the reading curriculum instead of limiting it to the kind of controlled vocabulary found in traditional basal readers, could have significant reverberations in the publishing industry.

``Once you get to the public arena,'' Myers explains, ``there's a strong possibility that the public can demand, especially in the urban areas, more books by black writers. So that will create a market.''

Myers also lauds Barbara Bush's efforts, calling her literacy campaign ``a very positive influence.''

``There's a strong possibility that if [Mrs. Bush] expands her program, or even maintains her interest, that this can help, that it will trickle down. It gives value to reading.''

He also finds it encouraging that the First Lady has ``so conspicuously embraced children of color. She's very often seen with black and Hispanic children, and that's good, too.''

``I think there's certainly a heightened awareness of multi-cultural issues ... on the part of children's publishers,'' says one industry insider. ``They know there's a demand there, and I think that as we move into the 1990s and as communities are becoming more diverse, there's going to be an increased demand for these kinds of books.''

This is a point well taken. If for no other reason, the country's changing demographics is something that may well influence the mix of children's books published in the future.

Minorities as majority

As Linda Perkins, library services manager for Young People's Services at the Berkeley Public Library in Berkeley, Calif., points out, ``This year, for the first time, in children under the age of 12 in the state of California, the white population was less than 50 percent. Now, that also includes Asian and Hispanic as well as black, but the minority is now the majority. And this will continue. ... That alone means that if the children's publishing industry is to thrive, it will have to shift, it will have to find these people.''

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