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Where are the diverse children's books?

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'Last Stop on Market Street'
Matt De La Pena's "Last Stop on Market Street" won the Newbery Medal for the best children's book of 2015.
Courtesy of Putnam

The lack of diversity in publishing is not a new issue. 

The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin - Madison has been studying it for years. In 2014, of 3,500 children's books received by the center, less than nine percent were written by authors of color. The trend extends to the characters in those books: Only 11 percent of the books were about characters of color.

The problem is not confined to children's books. Bestseller lists for adult fiction and nonfiction remain overwhelmingly white, though there are exceptions. 

Groups like We Need Diverse Books have been calling attention to the issue in recent years. Now, a new survey commissioned by the publisher Lee & Low Books provides the first-ever comprehensive look inside the industry.

The survey, conducted last year, analyzed the staff demographics of eight review journals and 34 publishers of varying size, from small presses all the way up to big players like Penguin Random House and Scholastic.

The survey shows that editorial department staffers — the people making decisions every day about what content should be published — are 82 percent white, 84 percent women, 86 percent heterosexual and 92 percent non-disabled.

The publishing industry as a whole, including sales, publicity, and executive departments, is not much more diverse: 79 percent white, 78 percent women, 88 percent heterosexual, 92 percent non-disabled.

These demographics likely play a role in the lack of diversity in published books: People are editing and promoting work that reflects their own identities. The question now becomes: How can the industry change?

One of the data analysts behind the survey, Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, who is also a professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University, joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to discuss the results. They were also joined by Matt de la Pena, a children's book author who just won the Newbery Medal for his book, "Last Stop on Market Street."

Barriers to diversity

De la Pena discussed how the nature of publishing jobs may be preventing more diverse staffers from taking positions.

"I think publishing, it's a very tough field to get into," he said. "You get paid very little at the beginning of your career, so often it's people who have a little help from home, people who go to the Ivy league schools, and just wander down into New York with an internship set up for them. It's hard to get your foot in door."

The same is true for authors, he said. His editor had to take a chance on him and his young adult book, "Ball Don't Lie," about African-American and Mexican-American boys playing basketball in Los Angeles. 

"I think the biggest thing is: What is your comfort zone as an editor? What are the stories that you feel are your speciality? Your expertise — often it's not going to be across race," de la Pena said. "With my case, in 2005, I had a Caucasian editor who said: 'I want this book on my list.' So she took a great risk."

Dahlen said the issue extends further, into libraries. Librarians play a key role in deciding which books to stock and which to promote to readers, but librarians are still a "fairly homogenous" group.

"If we are a fairly homogenous profession, how do we know the books we are evaluating are or are not authentic?" Dahlen said.

Reading suggestions: Diverse books

Of the small number of children's books that do feature diverse characters, many tackle heavy subjects: racism, poverty, slavery. Stories about Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Underground Railroad may be the only books on the shelves with African-American characters. Those are important stories, but that's not good enough, de la Pena said.

"The new diversity is stories featuring diverse characters in a plot that has nothing overtly to do with diversity," he said. "Where are the stories that just feature diverse characters in fun stories that kids want to gobble up? That's as important as anything."

"One of the things I would like to say: We're not saying [these books] should be instead of what's already there, we want this to also be there."

Matt de la Pena's reading recommendations

De la Pena's suggestions stretch from the littlest readers to older teens.

• "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
• "Drum Dream Girl" by Margarita Engle and Rafael Lopez
• "Trombone Shorty" by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier
• "Echo" by Pam Muñoz Ryan
• "Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood" by Benjamin Alire Saenz
• "This is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz
• "House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros
• "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang
• "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson
• "Inside Out & Back Again" by Thanhha Lai
• "One Crazy Summer" by Rita Williams-Garcia
• "A Long Walk to Water" by Linda Sue Park
• "We Are the Ship" by Kadir Nelson
• "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates
• "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" by Meg Medina

Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen's recommendations

Dahlen recommended a series of blogs and publishers to follow for diverse reading recommendations, and for resources on how to critically evaluate books for young people.

• American Indians in Children's Literature blog
• The Brown Bookshelf
• Lee & Low Books
• Cinco Puntos Press
• Just Us Books
• Zetta Elliott's blog
• Reflection Press, youth publishing
• Crazy Quilt Edi's booklists
• Reading While White blog
• We Need Diverse Books
• Disability in Kidlit
• Gay YA

Recommendations from listeners

• "The Creator's Game" by Art Coulson
• "Powwow Summer" by Marcie R. Rendon
• "When Beaver Was Very Great" by Anne Dunn
• "The Birchbark House" by Louise Erdrich
• "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats
• "Gabi, a Girl in Pieces" by Isabel Quintero
• "Pointe" by Brandy Colbert
• "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Perez
• "See No Color" by Shannon Gibney
• "Don't Call Me Grandma" by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
• "Everywhere Babies" by Susan Meyers and Marla Frazee

For the complete recommendation list and the full discussion with Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen and Matt de la Pena, use the audio player above.