Mister Cellophane

Posted September 11th, 2014

A Good Long WayI recently read a blog post by author René Saldaña, Jr., that got me wondering—and not for the first time—how much effort teachers and librarians, especially, go to when searching for books by authors of color. It is a question worth asking.

The other day, out of curiosity, I Googled myself. I found a whopping 1, 470,000 results listed under my name. These include bios, videos, interviews, periodical features, photos, and, of course, books and audio-books. Wow. And yet, I regularly meet teachers and librarians who are wholly unfamiliar with my work. How is that possible?

Talkin' About BessieNow, I’m not saying my work is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because there are writers out there whose wordsmithing I envy. What I’m saying is that my titles are not exactly in hiding. In fact, throughout the course of my career, I have worked diligently to make sure they’re not. From seeking out bookstore signings, in my early days; to doing school visits; to producing postcards and bookmarks; to creating a comprehensive website; to investing in teacher guides for my books; to developing an online presence via Facebook, and now Twitter—in these ways, and more, I have made a concerted effort to put my work out there. How is it, then, that many people still manage to miss it?

Pocketful of PoemsBefore I go any further, let me say that I am extremely grateful for those teachers and librarians who have sought out and found my work, over the years, and then went on to share it with the students they serve. Obviously, I wouldn’t have much of a career without these literature-loving professionals. They have kept a goodly percentage of my 46 trade, and 20-odd mass-market books in print. I’m hoping they receive to my next two titles with equal kindness. However, after 30+ years in the business, I still routinely hear people say, “I’ve looked for your work everywhere and can’t find it,” to which I respond, “Huh?”

Almost ZeroI have a website featuring all of my titles, awards, audio-clips, and select reviews, with posted links to IndieBound.org and Amazon.com. In addition, I have a Wikipedia page, as well as an Amazon.com page. How hard have you been looking, exactly? I’m confused.

Sylvia Vardell’s must-view Poetry for Children website lists many of my poetry titles. TeachingBooks.net features my Coretta Scott King Award and Honor winners (six in total). I, thankfully, have books on any number of Best Book lists. Tell me again how hard it is to find my work.

Bronx MasqueradeClearly, there’s more to the lack of diversity in children’s books than whether or not POC are creating and publishing them. Could it be that some lack the motivation to seek out the books that are already there? That’s what René Saldaña, Jr., is asking. Now, I am, too.

Mind you, I’m not saying that we don’t need more books by people of color, because we most certainly do. The numbers show that we are woefully off the mark in producing diverse books in numbers commensurate with the proportion of our ever-increasingly diverse population. But that said, I am suggesting that we, perhaps, look at the issue a little more closely, that we ask a few more uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

René Saldaña, Jr., spoke to this issue from the point of view of an author with a little less visibility than mine. And yet I have to agree with so much of what he has to say.

The juggernaut that is #WeNeedDiverseBooks is hard at work to raise the visibility of books by, and for, people of color. This is great and important work. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more going on beneath the surface that would explain why the gatekeepers in this business continue to miss the POC books—including Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and National Book Award Winners—that are already out in the marketplace.

Where, exactly, is the disconnect? Is it the want-to that’s missing? If so, how do we begin to address it?

Let’s talk.

8 Responses to “Mister Cellophane”

  1. Debbie Reese says:

    For some, it is ignorance, They might know about your work but are ignorant of its relevance to the lives of their students.

    For some it is racism. They might know of your work but think reading/assigning it is a bow to “political correctness” and so choose to ignore it, and they don’t think they’re racist. That stance is, I think, racist.

  2. Debbie Reese says:

    As for what to do… I’m at a dismal state of mind in that regard.

    Teaching and librarianship are low status/low pay. It is kind of like the volunteer internships in many fields, including in DC with Congress. The only people that can do low pay/volunteer work are those who can afford to, which means the wealthy, which (mostly) means people who don’t know the experiences of low income/people of color/Native people… From that space of ignorance and privilege, can they really help? Do they really understand the need for this literature? Do they give it a superficial nod but not ‘own’ its import?

  3. Miranda Paul says:

    Nikki, I just read a librarian’s blog post recently which said that most of the authors whose work they are familiar with or that they come to know are the ones being sent on book tours or promoted heavily by publishers. These authors visit schools and libraries at no charge to the school or library. Might this be related to the skew between the names that teachers and librarians recognize easily and ones they don’t?

    I’m guessing that most teachers and librarians are super-busy (overworked and underpaid) and they might be getting most info from the catalogs sent to them as well as other marketing push/buzz.

    The post is here: http://groggorg.blogspot.com/2014/09/fee-vs-free-authorillustrator-visits.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+GroupBlog+%28Group+Blog%29

  4. Charlotte G. says:

    Debbie, I really have to disagree with your characterization of teachers and librarians as “those who can afford to” and “wealthy;” I’m in a library science program myself, and have friends who either teach or are in teaching certificate programs, and the vast majority of the students and professionals I know are lower to middle income and come from a diverse spectrum of racial backgrounds. They understand that teaching and librarianship is high stress/low pay work; most are doing it because they thinks it’s important work; some do it because, low-pay aside, both are jobs with high job security and good benefits, which is important to someone experiencing financial insecurity. I don’t know anyone who qualifies as “wealthy,” or who isn’t making some sort of financial sacrifice in order to attend school.

    That said, while my current certificate program has diverse students and faculty, the Master’s program I attended for a short time was majority white. This is the problem. Certificate programs are diverse, but there’s a clear glass ceiling when it comes to graduate school attendance. Depending on state laws and job requirements, this may mean that teaching and librarian jobs in schools are closed off to anyone without a Master’s, creating a professional population of middle-income whites for whom diversity in reading materials, while nice, doesn’t perhaps make their list of important considerations when making a reading list.

    I think that’s subject to change, though; in my class on children’s and young adult material, #weneeddiversebooks was a definite topic of conversation, and we talked about how important it was from a collections management point of view to have diverse shelves so that our students and patrons can see themselves represented in what we offer them to read.

    It’s making the connection between “diversity is important” to “putting diverse books in children’s hands is important” that is the real issue here. Having a diverse collection is useless if you’re not actively promoting it to students and patrons. This is where I think white teachers and librarians falter. They don’t make the effort to ensure that not only are the materials available to kids, but that the materials are actually seen by and recommended to kids.

    I think there’s a variety of reasons for this: some don’t want to be seen as promoting an agenda, or worry that pitching (for example) Black books to Black kids will make them appear racist (and yes, this is an argument against promoting diverse books I have heard before). Most just don’t understand, as people who have the privilege of seeing themselves so well represented in literature, how rare it for minorities to be exposed to books that represent them – and thus how important it is to encourage that discovery. They recognize POINTE and EL DEAFO and THE GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE (to use titles that have come out this year) as great, diverse books, but they don’t understand what those books mean to a young Black woman or a disabled student or a queer teen struggling with their sexuality.

    I don’t really know what we can do about this other than continue to raise awareness about diverse books, and encourage both teaching and library training and educational programs to discuss the importance of making sure that the reading material they offer and use in their programming reflects the diversity of their students. I know that’s not a silver bullet solution, but I don’t think there really is one to this problem – just education. We continue to have these discussions online and off; we continue to bring these discussions into the classroom, into the library. We make sure these discussions are covered by the media (has the School Library Journal done anything to promote diversity? Has Kirkus? Trade publications are excellent platforms for making librarians and teachers aware of books that might otherwise escape their notice).

    The key is to make sure that this issue gets continual coverage, and doesn’t just become subsumed by other library and publishing problems.

  5. Rene says:

    Nikki: Your piece caused me to read the lyrics to “Mr. Cellophane,” and yup, there it is: Seen but not seen, there but not there (or not recognized). I believe the problem stems from several places and most of them have to do with a false sense of having arrived: at a place of understanding of other, at a place of open-mindedness, at a place of acceptance of other. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I think we (myself included) think we have achieved that place of King’s DREAM because we are not the same as those from that time; because we have evolved; we are more enlightened. And yet, we’re not. I think until we admit that we do show preference, that is a bias for, which by default means a prejudice against (sure, we don’t keep Black kids from going to all-White schools, nor is the simple act of sitting at the counter of a Woolworths jarring to us, but there are safer ways to show both) we won’t move forward. We’ll remain stagnant, which in my mind, is just as bad as anything overt. Thanks for reading my piece. It means a great deal.

  6. Dr. Miguel Lopez says:

    Thanks for this musing… I’ve followed the spring summer discussion…

    Here are my thoughts…Off the top of my head, so perhaps still in need of some wordsmithing… As you know, my world is that of the K-12 world… which I think matters cause, theoretically, every kids should pass through this “system.” Thus, a great place to ask these questions… and muse on ideas…

    1. Racism. At the end of the day, race and racism still exist. This is my larger frame, what we academics call a “crtiical race theory” approach. How this translates into “sales” and “marketing” at the commercial level is that books with covers with “folks of color” are not represented as well. Thus, while librarians might know of the various ALA awards of quality books by and about folks of color, there is not an equal interest beyond that. This goes for teachers as well (my neighborhood). So, while us folks of color might care, sadly, there is not a uniform interest across the board. This is NOT to say folks are Racists with a Capital R. Rather, it is to say that too many folks do not see a reason to read about the lives of folks of color. There is not a an interest in folks to believe that we are, or should be, an interconnected peoples. That the lives of young black men (Michael Brown) is not just a “black folks” issue. It is a national issue. It is an issue of justice. It is an issue of compassion. It is an STORY of … (this point, as with others below, could be made about immigration, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).

    2. Quality. Even over the summer musings by folks there is still a generic just give me “quality” piece of literature (a good story) argument, and the racial make up of the characters should be secondary, that is made (by authors–prominently a white male–in the business). As if you all (writers of color) can only do “weak” character sketches. Rather than seeing, Bronx, for instance, as a damn good book that ALSO wrestles with a variety of -isms (racism included), it is seen just as a black folks book (by the cover).

    3. Fear. Too many folks really don’t want to talk, thoughtfully, about racism or other “difficult” issues. So, teen pregnancy, racism, LGBTQ identities, foster care, etc. means that a whole slice of books, most often with characters of color, written by folks of color, don’t get read and discussed. So, Bronx might be read, cause there is racial diversity. But, a book with ONLY black folks… “doesn’t have enough appeal.” Similarly, the “I don’t want to offend” or “sound racist” preempts folks from having the courage to jump into the thick of things.

    4. Tokenism. Even over the spring/summer dialogue (one which I think is great!) there is still a willingness to tokenize folks of color. An unintentional form of racism. So, books with characters of color are “praised.” But there is not always a thoughtful consideration of the story. So, yes, there may be a character who is black, and immigrant, a young girl, etc. But the larger issues of how that character’s race, status, gender, etc. IMPACT the storyline is often minimal. So, Devon was BLACK, but his blackness matters. And you, amazingly, weave a meaningful story into that reality.

    5. Non-reading. When I teach Bronx (or something by Rita Williams Garcia, Jacqueline Woodson, Guadalupe McCall, An Na, etc.) there is often a limited understanding of the lives of the folks of color in the books. So, for me, it is not just that there is a “shortage” of books by folks of color about and for kids of color (as well as for white folks), but rather, that many folks (again, my neighborhood is teachers, the majority of whom are white females) don’t know how to read Bronx (Road to Paradise, Locomotion, PS 11, Under the Mesquite, A Step from Heaven). A lack of understanding about race/racism, culture, urban life, etc. means that good books are not fully read. (so, my beef with this entire dialogue is not that NUMBERS should be our primary concern, but rather, are we learning how to thoughtfully read… Yes, we need Louise Rosenblatt’s classic on reading literature. And us educators should teach that! But we also need to teach the sociology of being a person of color and of whiteness. So, for instance, I teach Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly. And folks miss the nuances of whiteness in the book, but “see” (at least superficially) the racism towards the black character.

    6. Bad Education. One of the things I see all the time is that my teachers to be (and those in the field) will go on line and look at the teacher’s guides (like to Bronx). Rather than a thoughtful discussion of the book, there is a quick movement to “what is your issue.” But, cause the book was “under-read,” the class discussion and personal writings are often “under-developed.” Then, there is a snowball effect in which there is little thoughtfulness of complexities of being a person of color in society.

    7. Barak Obama. Eric Holder. Michael Brown. M.L. King, Jr. As a nation, again, for me, in our K-12 schools, we miss the chances to talk thoughtfully about racism. Almost ALL of my teachers to be have not listened to Obama’s speech on racism. Have not listened to Holder’s speech on racism. Have already moved on from the death of Michael Brown. And all LOVE King, but won’t read his speeches on racism (or only see his words as historical markers of the KKK in the 60s).

    So, yes, we need to talk… but if numbers are the issues… we might have a great conversation, but miss the deeper “threats” to raising a nation of “readers.”

    With much LOVE and hella RESPECT for you as a WOMAN of COLOR who WRITES BEAUTIFUL stuff!

    LOVE YOU!
    Paz,
    Miguel

  7. Carrie King says:

    Nikki, I am an elementary computer lab teacher in an at-risk school, with a love of children’s books. Students borrow books from me on a regular basis, and I make sure there are books for all races, cultures, interests, and reading levels on the shelves. From the sing-song of Danitra Brown, to the spunky Diamonde Daniel, your books stand strong on my shelves with Christopher Paul Curtis, Jacqueline Woodson, Mildred D. Taylor, and more. Thank you for sharing them with us!

  8. Genois Brabson says:

    I’m already a fan reading some writings you posted about racists acts this year. I enjoyed your art especially the bright colors you use.

    I agree too little dialogue about empathy and racisim. We well mentality adults need to find ways to confront the racisim and plant seeds of caring for each other.

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