PEN America Report Analyzes Challenges for Diverse Youth Literature

Banned Books Week bannerBanned Books Week 2016 starts this Sunday, and this year’s theme celebrates diversity! A high proportion of frequently challenged and banned books are by or about people of color or LGBTQ individuals. In advance of the annual celebration of the freedom to read, PEN America issued an in-depth report looking at outright challenges to diverse books for youth, as well as the “soft censorship” and lack of diversity in the publishing industry that sometimes prevents them from reaching school or library shelves in the first place.

The 36-page report, titled Missing from the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature, first establishes the importance of children being able to see people like them in the books that they read. Fully half of K-12 public school students right now are people of color, but that ratio is not reflected in publishing. The hurdles for diverse representations often start before a book is even accepted for publication; award-winning author Daniel José Older noted that his novel Shadowshaper was rejected 40 times before it was finally picked up by Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books imprint. With many of the rejections he heard a familiar refrain:

The editors said, ‘We don’t identify with the main character. But it’s such great writing.’ I said, ‘You’re not supposed to identify with the character. Because you’re a 30-year-old white woman, and the character’s a 16-year-old brown woman.’

Moreover, the lack of diversity in publishing tends to be self-perpetuating, given that the industry largely relies on unpaid internships and low-paid entry level jobs for fresh talent–a model that favors young adults who have other means of support such as loans from family. Efforts like the internship grant offered by We Need Diverse Books are attempting to compensate for the unequal representation in the industry, but as of now publishing remains much more homogenous than the U.S. population at large.

When diverse children’s and young adult books do reach publication, some teachers and librarians admit avoiding them either because they expect the books will be challenged by parents (often the case with LGBTQ-themed materials), or because they think their students or patrons simply won’t identify with the characters. Some teachers also bypass books written by authors of color that include racial slurs in context–such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie or Tyrell by Coe Booth–because they would not be comfortable discussing the issue with their students. Booth, whose novel was one of three recently challenged in Chesterfield County, Virginia, recalled a note she got from one teacher who loved the book but hesitated to use it in the classroom:

‘I’m a white teacher, my students are mostly black and Latino, and I’m just uncomfortable with the N-word,’ one teacher wrote. Booth responded, ‘It’s ok to be uncomfortable, you should be uncomfortable with that word. You can be uncomfortable and still teach, and discuss why you’re uncomfortable with the students.’

When diverse books face challenges from parents or others who want them removed from school or library shelves, often it’s in well-to-do suburban or rural communities where some adults believe they need to shield children from all the harsh realities of life. As Older points out, though, “people of color don’t have the luxury of being able to sugarcoat history to our children…The role of literature is to tell us the difficult truths…to arm us for the world in all of its ugliness.”

That dichotomy was brought into sharp relief by the 2014 Virginia challenge to Toni Morrison’s Beloved from the mother of a white 17-year-old AP English student who had nightmares after reading a portion of the novel about an ex-slave who killed her infant daughter to save her from being taken back into bondage. That challenge failed, but spawned a bill in the state’s General Assembly that would have required schools to notify parents of any assigned book judged to be “sexually explicit.” The bill passed through both houses of the Assembly, but was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe earlier this year.

When a book does feature diverse characters, all too often that diversity is not even reflected in the cover art. The PEN America report highlights the 2009 fight over the U.S. cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. Even though the main character is a short-haired black girl, the original cover design from Bloomsbury Publishing depicted her as white with long hair. Most authors are allowed very little input on cover design, but in this case Larbalestier’s protest was joined by legions of advance reviewers, and Bloomsbury ultimately redesigned the cover. Another author who spoke to PEN America for the report detailed the arduous struggle for cover art that even comes close to representing her characters:

An author of color who wishes to remain anonymous but was interviewed by PEN America for this report, says that the cover art has presented problems for each of her several recent books. The art department wanted to make her heroine pale-skinned with straight hair for one book, even though the manuscript explicitly described her as dark-skinned with an afro. As the art staff presented new drafts of the cover, the author had to fight shade by shade for darker skin tone, and curl by curl for more African hair—and the skin never got as dark or the hair as tightly coiled as she had envisioned.

The issue of depicting characters of color authentically also comes up in comics, of course, as African American comic artist Ronald Wimberly described in his introspective piece Lighten Up published by The Nib last year.

Check out the full Missing From the Shelf report from PEN America here, and get ready to celebrate diverse books during Banned Books Week!

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.