Tuesday, November 3, 2015

#ILLibrary15 Illinois Library Association conference panel on Diversity

In October 2015, I was moderated a panel of authors and illustrators of diverse books at the Illinois Library Association meeting in Peoria, Il.

B A Binns, Miranda Paul, Chris Raschka, Laura Park
This well attended panel presentation took place in a double room at the Peoria Civic Center on October 23, 2015 in front of a packed crowd of public and school librarians eager to learn and panel members eager to do our job to help.

But looking back, I'm afraid we failed on one particular question. One librarian asked if any of us had ever been asked to change a character's race or ethnicity. We all gave quick, and technically correct answers: No, nothing like that had never happened to any us. Then we went on to the next audience question.

It was only after the presentation ended that I realized the answer was too quick and too literal. No, none of my editors has ever asked me to change a character's race. But they have done other, sometimes more sinister things.

Before I was published I had someone explain that my black male character did not talk like a real black man. That person gave me a list of books featuring black characters to read as examples of how African-American males talk, books written by white authors that featured stereotypical black characters. My brother and I had a laugh when I told the man I used as a model that he did not talk like a black man. I had one editor who looked at my first published novel, Pull, claim the heroine was too smart. I still get the "I just can't feel this character" kinds of comments from editors looking over my books; something that I never hear from readers. And right now, one of the editors looking at my most recent manuscript said the dialog "needs a lot of work."

No, they didn't exactly ask for a change in the race of the character, but I do get comments that would never happen if the character were white. Like the suggestion that I was wrong having the mother of a boy recently released from juvenile detention feel ashamed because that kind of behaviour is normal in neighbourhoods like that. Or that it was unrealistic that a ghetto school would have a thriving music program.  When I mentioned that I never said the place was a "ghetto" just that the student body was predominantly black and latino, the response was to tell me that if it was not a ghetto area I needed to say that in so many words.

So no, I've never been asked to change a character's race in so many words.  I just get the push backs because of their race.

It's not just me. Some authors censor themselves first. I know one black author who writes white characters because that's the way she can get published. CCBC statistics show that many Asian authors do not create Asian characters. ( See the numbers on books by and about different races as compiled by the CCBC - the Cooperative Children's Book Center - At the same time I have seem a middle grade book whose publishers decided to "shade in" (and that's a direct quote) one of the characters and call it diverse.

This is the real answer to the question.

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