This is not a book review, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone here.
I’m irritated, maybe even angry, possibly more… but I don’t want you to stop reading this post. I’ve written some of this on my About page, but probably no one reads that.
I am a middle school librarian in the USA and I serve kids ages 10-15. The ethnicity of the population of the school I have served for the past 8 years is 70% African American. The national test data shows that AA kids lag significantly behind white peers in reading scores.
Imagine you are me, the school librarian, making purchasing decisions for your collection. I get the publisher and jobber catalogs and what do I see at first glance? White kids on book covers and books with symbolic covers. Not that there’s a problem with that, but remember my student body. I’m trying to change the statistics. I’m trying to buy books that reflect my students. By reflect, I mean what they see in the mirror. To be specific, black faces, black teens/tweens on the covers. I can’t do it, I can’t find them in the catalogs in any measure close to all those white faces on the covers. I’ve said this on my Twitter before that as the librarian, I can share many great books with my kids that have AA characters. I can “read and tell, but I can’t SHOW.” I think that’s sad.
Don’t get me wrong, some of those symbolic covers probably have black main characters. And I’m sure that those books are awesome. But if you’re an AA kid browsing at the local bookstore or in the school library, what book covers speak to you? You look at any selection of newest release books put before you and you wonder, where am I in this?
As a buyer, here’s what I see when I finally find those black faces on the covers: HISTORICAL FICTION – the book is about slavery or the civil rights era. That’ll brighten my kids’ day thinking about how crappy their history has been and the plight of their people. CONTEMPORARY FICTION (often termed urban fiction) – the book is probably going to involve drama/cat fights, way too many references to what I’m wearing or what person I’m hooking up with, basketball/football, gangs, racism, etc. They are reading these contemporary stories… the Bluford High Series went ballistic in checkouts after the photo cover redesign. But have I missed the many positive school stories, stories with hopes and dreams for the future? Those books are few and far between. (Share those titles with me if you know them!) Do you see the percentage of AA books published for adults that is erotic fiction? Is anyone thinking of the kids, the future? SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY – hello? anybody home? *crickets* Can we imagine different worlds and different societies? The only 2 with black faces on the cover that come to mind are Troy Cle’s The Marvelous Effect and Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (both of which went symbolic cover for later editions). I get it, writers want to earn a living and I don’t blame them. If I’m a kid, I live in an HD world! I’d grab the redesign HD cover for Marvelous Effect before the original illustrated character cover too, but if it were a photographic HD cover rather than illustrated, I’d have a tougher time deciding.
If we can’t create readers, we won’t create writers, we won’t create buyers and this inequality will never go away.
Given the advances in on-demand publishing, would there be a way to offer alternate covers for librarians/booksellers with this need? Go back through your catalog and find books with AA characters and do cover redesigns – get the word out to school librarians. Run some focus groups with kids.
One last word:
Beyond the unavailability of titles, the percentage of books that receive the Reading Counts or Accelerated Reader tests that many school systems use further add to the inequality of student representation. If my kids find a book they love with a black face on the cover, the probability that there’s a test on it is slimmer too, and thus they can’t show their teacher that they HAVE been reading and grades suffer further. Test producers need to make a concentrated effort in this area as well.
Stepping down from the ranting chair now… thank you for reading. Really.