The Search for Multicultural Children’s Books

An interview with Kathleen Horning of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center conducted by Clare Seguin

Editors’ note: Kathleen Horning is a librarian and Coordinator of Special Collections at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The CCBC receives and reviews every book for children published in the United States. Horning also is editor of Alternative Press Publishers of Children’s Books: a Directory (1988). With Ginny Moore Kruse, she co-authored Multicultural Children’s and Young Adult Literature (1989). She has served on the ALA/ALSC’s Notable Children’s Books Committee and the John Newbery Award Committee. She is currently a member of ALA/SRRT Coretta Scott King Award Committee. This interview was conducted for Rethinking Schools by Clare Seguin, who teaches 5th grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin.

To start, could you give us some general background on the history of multicultural children’s book publishing?

KH: A key article appeared over 25 years ago: “The All White World of Children’s Books,” by Nancy Larrick. It was very influential in that it made people who work with children’s literature aware of how little there was in children’s books that reflected any kind of racial diversity. Following that, there was a lot of active searching on the part of publishers for people of color who were interested in writing or illustrating children’s books, particularly African-Americans.

That’s where people like Virginia Hamilton and John Steptoe, people who came to be very well known, got their starts; those publishers were out there really looking for them. John Steptoe was a sixteen year old kid living in Harlem when he was discovered by an editor who was going around to galleries in Harlem looking for Black artists. His first book, Stevie, was the first published children’s book I know of written in Black English. His editor was concerned about the use of Black English and wanted him to standardize it and he said “No, this is the way I want it to be.” I would call it a groundbreaking book because it was so unusual, there was nothing else like it.

Also at that time, during the late sixties, a very influential periodical called The Council On Interracial Books for Children Bulletin was established by a man named Bradford Chambers. It published articles on various social concerns and it reviewed books. It had a very strong political point of view, taking on the all-white world of children’s book publishing. The Council on Interracial Books for Children started running a manuscript contest for people of color. In addition they frequently published artwork by unknown black artists who were found that way. They were providing an outlet, a forum. The manuscript contest was very successful and if you look at people of color writing children’s books today, it’s really amazing the number of them who got their start that way: Walter Dean Myers, Mildred Taylor, Nicholasa Mohr, who is a Puerto Rican writer, to name a few. There was a — you really couldn’t call it a renaissance because there’d never been much before — but there was a flowering of multicultural publishing. The writers and artists who were published during that time continue to publish the bulk of what is being put out there.

When we moved into the mid-seventies the publishers didn’t continue looking for new talent. You still had Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Mildred Taylor, and Tom Feelings writing and illustrating books for children, but there weren’t many new people and many of the books which were published during the late sixties and early seventies started to go out of print. This period was kind of a desert.

RS: Why do you think the publishers discontinued their search for new talent?

KH: Because the publishers thought they’d “done that.” Publishers will also tell you that multicultural books don’t sell well.

RS: Is that true?

KH: Obviously they can’t sell if they’re not there. But also there’s a lot of racism in that statement.

We became aware of this state of affairs in the early 1980s when one of the people using the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) called us wanting to look at from Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield all the books that were available by Black authors. We started pulling together what we had and looking in Books in Print to see what was still available. We were just absolutely shocked at how many of the books had gone out of print. We took Subject Guide to Books in Print and looked under subject heading Blacks -fiction and the list was not very long. Since we were familiar with the books on that list we noticed that a lot of them were written by white authors. If you started looking at just those written by black authors the list was even smaller. As a contrast, I turned a few pages back and looked under the heading Bears-fiction and it went on for pages. It just seemed ironic that you could buy all these books about walking and talking bears, but when you looked for books about real people they’re not there.

Around that time my colleague Ginny Moore Kruse started serving on the Coretta Scott King Award committee, an annual award established in 1969 to encourage black authors and illustrators to write and illustrate for children. The year Ginny was on the committee for the first time she saw everything that was eligible. Everything by a black author or illustrator is eligible whether it’s culturally conscious or not. As the year went on and Ginny’s list kept, well, I won’t even say growing, it was more like stagnating by the end of the year there were only 18 titles on that list. 18.

RS: What year was this?

KH: This was 1985. This was a year when there were over 2500 children’s books published overall. We were so shocked by this number. There was a feeling among us in the library world and in the publishing world that there was much more, but here we had the documentary evidence. We decided to publish that number in an annual publication we do called CCBC Choices.

This had quite an interesting impact. We had calls from small publishers — either Black publishers or multicultural — wanting that documentation to validate all the hard work they were doing because small presses don’t typically make a lot of money, it’s more of a labor of love. They had a sense that what they were doing was important, but then when they saw how much they’re contributing to the overall picture it really validated what they’re doing. They also used it to support grant proposals to support their publishing of multicultural literature.

RS: The 18 titles included small presses?

KH: Yes, but at that time there weren’t a lot of small presses.

RS: How is the situation today? Have those numbers improved?

KH: Ginny continued on the Coretta Scott King Award committee so we continued to keep the count. Every year it went up a bit.

Last year the total was 38 titles, but you also have to keep in mind that the total number of children’s books has gone up phenomenally. Last year there were about 4,000 children’s books published. So 38 out of 4,000 ….

RS: That’s the figure for African-American writers and illustrators of children’s books; is it safe to assume that for other people of color the numbers are as small or smaller?

KH: Yes, that would be a correct assumption, but we haven’t kept that documentation because there isn’t a similar award.

When people come in and ask us for children’s books by Hispanic authors, for example, there’s Nicholasa Mohr, Fran Ortiz, George Ancona, Gary Soto… and if you’re waiting for me to give you another name you’ll be waiting a while. For Asian-Americans there’s Ed Young, Yoshiko Uchida, Keiko Kazsa, Keiko Narahashi, Laurence Yep…If you’re looking for Native Americans publishing in the mainstream, there’s Virginia

Driving Hawk Sneve. And then you have the case of Jamaka Highwater who has been held up as the Native American author, won a Newberry honor, and has been found to be a fake, a member of the “Wannabe” tribe.

He claims to be Blackfoot but an investigation by Akwesasne Notes found him to be Greek-American. They are using him as an example in proposed legislation making it illegal to impersonate a Native American, which is serious business when you consider that Jamaka Highwater has gotten a quarter of a million dollars in government grants that should be going to American Indians for arts projects.

RS: How difficult is it for a person of color to get a book published by a large publisher?

KH: I heard second hand this statement from a publisher at the American Library Association Convention last summer. When an editor of a major publishing company was asked why she didn’t publish more books by Black authors, her answer was that she had published Virginia Hamilton and if there was an author who sent her a manuscript that was as good as Virginia Hamilton, she would publish that author, but she hasn’t found anyone that good. Had I been there my response to her would have been she’s already publishing books by white authors who aren’t as good as Virginia Hamilton, so why is there a double standard?

At the CCBC we see everything that’s published. We’re aware that most of what gets published in the realm of children’s books is mediocre to average. We always make a point to pay close attention to first novels. Editors have a kind of understanding that you publish a person’s first four novels for their fifth novel because a person is learning about writing; they’re being nurtured; they’re being encouraged. The books that do get published by people of color tend to be outstanding books — above average. What that suggests is that there isn’t room for a person of color to be nurtured in that same way.

It’s even difficult for established black authors to get books published. Several years ago Tom Feelings, who is one of the best known African-American illustrators for kids, illustrated a book that was written by Maya Angelou titled Now Sheba Sings the Song. It was really a picture book for adults. They could not sell that book to a publisher, even with Maya Angelou and Tom Feelings’ incredible name recognition. Finally, they did manage to sell it but you can imagine how it would be for someone who didn’t have any name recognition at all. Walter Dean Myers told me last summer that he had written a nonfiction book for children dealing with a certain aspect of African-American history and he couldn’t sell it. Finally after five years he did sell it.

RS: Do you know how many editors in the children’s book realm are people of color?

KH: One of the big problems in mainstream publishing is that there aren’t editors who are people of color, people who might recognize talent and might develop it.

There are two in Scholastic books that I know of, Bernette Ford and Phoebe Yeh, and I’ve heard of a Phillipina editor, but I don’t know her name. The next list that comes from Scholastic in Spring of ’91 will be the first with books that were edited by Bernette Ford.

RS: What other barriers are there for people of color who want to write for children?

KH: Racism is the biggest barrier, and the double standards. I can only assume from the things that get published that editors think books written by white authors about people of color suffice as multicultural literature. There are some incredibly poor things that get published by white authors.

RS: Could you give some examples?

KH: There’s a white author named Belinda Hurmence who has written three novels for children that deal with African-American experience. The first, Tough Tiffany, is about a contemporary child; it’s probably the least offensive. The other two deal with history. A Girl Called Boy is about a contemporary, middle-class black child who finds some little stone or something that magically transports her back in history to the pre-Civil War era. She finds herself on a plantation and becomes a house servant, which seems to be fine with her. It’s this whole Southern white mythology that there are the ‘good’ blacks and the ‘bad’ blacks and house servants really liked their positions.

RS: So the slave experience is depicted as a pleasant experience?

KT: Basically. It isn’t too pleasant in the first part when she’s on the plantation with the field hands, but when she makes it into the big house, becomes a very favored servant,and she and the mistress get along real well, it’s really not so bad.

It’s very interesting if you look closely at the descriptions of the field hands. They’re frequently described with terminology that compares them to animals. For example, when one of the field hands smiles at the main character, his smile is described as ‘almost human’.

The third and most offensive novel is called Tancy. It’s set in the time right at the end of the Civil War. It’s about a black teenage girl who has been a house servant all her life and the impact of freedom on her life. She goes out in search of her mother, who she’s been separated from for many years. She finds her mother, decides she has nothing in common with her and goes back to the plantation to the mistress, who she feels is really her mother. In one incredible scene, the redneck son of the master attempts to rape Tansy. The mistress comes in on the scene and says to him, “How could you — your own sister!”. The thoughts going through Tansy’s head after this are the woman’s words, she’s putting it together that the master is her father and that her mother was also raped. She thinks “no wonder I love the master — he’s my daddy.”

RS: It’s amazing something like that could get published.

KH: Really. What woman reading this book could think that right after someone was raped they would be thinking about how much they loved the man who raped their mother?

RS: Was it edited by a woman?

KT: Most of the editors of children’s books are women. This one happened to be published by one of the few men. It makes me sad to see a book like that listed as a book about black experience.

There was another book published this year called The Ballad of Belle Dorcas by William Hooks, a white, southern folklorist. It is a picture book, a folk tale set during slavery times and built upon a premise that never existed. In the introduction Hooks claims that slaves fathered by white masters were free; they had the status of their fathers, which isn’t true. It was true in South America, but never here. The conflict in the book arises when Belle Dorcas, who is a ‘free issue’ falls in love with a man who isn’t, and her mother wants her to leave him to find another ‘free issue’ so she can be free. This book has received starred reviews. I’m incredulous.

RS: Who’s doing the reviewing? How has the media affected children’s book publishing?

KH: Sadly, The Ballad of Belle Dorcas is illustrated by a young black illustrator, Brian Pinckney, (Jerry Pinckney’s son), and his illustrations are really good. I think people are so wowed by the illustrations that they aren’t paying as close attention to the content, aren’t questioning the history of it. It’s clearly something that white people made up to feel more comfortable about slavery.

I think that reviewing is getting a little bit better, but there still aren’t very many people of color in reviewing. A few years ago at the American Library Association (ALA) convention, a special panel of reviewers were asked the question, “How many of you have people of color reviewing for you?” The first panelist answered that she thought the question was irrelevant because there’s no racism or sexism in children’s books anymore. The second one said she thought the major problem was that we didn’t have enough men reviewing children’s books. The third responded that, although they had no black reviewers, they had a Polish American, a Scotts-Irish-German, and continued listing European ethnic groups. To her credit, she stopped and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not taking your question seriously and it should be taken seriously. We don’t have any black reviewers.” Not only do they not have black reviewers but they don’t even perceive that as a problem.

RS: These were representatives of the mainstream children’s literature journals?

KH: Yes. The major review journals are School Library Journal, Hornbook, Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books, Booklist. School Library Journal has volunteer reviewers, librarians from all over the country. I used to review for them. As an example of what happens when someone tries to point out a problem in a book, I did a review of Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter. I had some real problems with that book. I think it was done with the best of intentions, but the way that the story was told was that this man, Peg-Leg Joe, a white man, went around from plantation to plantation teaching a song to slaves. [The Drinking Gourd was a song used on the underground railroad to tell slaves how to escape north to freedom—eds.] There’s no indication that any of the slaves had any previous notion of escaping. They were totally dependent on benevolent whites. In the illustrations, all of the black people looked exactly alike, with great big scared eyes, following along behind the white man. If it had been one of many books about this period I wouldn’t have objected so strongly, but as it is only one of a handful of books, I feel it paints a fairly skewed picture.

I got a letter of complaint even before the piece was printed, from an author who writes for the publisher of the book. She said she felt it was unfortunate that people point out stereotypes in children’s books because they are actually keeping the stereotypes alive by doing so. The publisher of that book, who had always been very friendly to me wouldn’t speak to me for a year. I also had the very unusual experience of three other reviewers approaching me to thank me for my review and admitting that they wished they had the courage to say those kinds of things in their reviews.

RS: So they are aware that there are problems in many of the books they review but they’re not speaking out.

KH: Exactly. Why are they so willing, for example, to rip to shreds a small press book, and not something by this multi-million dollar business?

RS: Are there any sources of multicultural book reviews done by people of color?

KH: There are sources for content reviews. These are reference books and are valuable but limited in that they often don’t publish a review until the book has been out for a few years and librarians already have it on the shelf. There’s a book called Books Without Bias: Through Indian Eyes which is a compilation of content reviews by American Indians. Shadow and Substance by Rudine Simms-Bishop is a source for reviews by African-Americans on books dealing with African-Americans. We need more of these voices in the mainstream journals.

RS: Let’s talk about small presses. How many are there? How are they doing? Are there many small presses specializing in multicultural literature for children?

KH: There are a lot of small presses and they really vary. There are a number of presses which have come into being in the last few years which are publishing books by and about people of color. Some have been around a long time, such as Children’s Book Press in San Francisco, which has been around for about fifteen years.

They’ve done a lot of multicultural picture books. They started out doing mostly bilingual books. They published the first Korean bilingual picture book. They’re one of the few presses to publish anything from Nicaragua. They continue to break ground printing work of people who otherwise won’t get heard, such as the Hmong and Native Americans.

One of the things that really interests me are the presses that have sprung up in the last few years that are owned and operated by people of color. Just Us Books is a good example. They publish what they call Afro-centric books for children. They started off with two very simple concept books, a counting book and an alphabet book called Afro-Bets. They’re unusual in that they feature black children and the things that they name are culturally specific, for instance they’ll have ’kenti cloth’ for ’k’.

They’ve really evolved as a very fine publisher. They’re coming out with a series on self-esteem for pre-schoolers. The first title is called Bright Eyes, Brown Skin. This year they’ve published a book called Afro-Bets First Book About Africa. It’s the only thing like it and it’s been phenomenally successful for them. What’s really strange is that they were approached by Toys-R-Us, who decided that they were interested in test marketing books for the first time and that was the book they chose to start with. I think that’s very encouraging.

Another interesting publisher is called Writers and Readers Press, started by Glen Thompson. He recently decided to publish children’s books under the imprint “Black Butterfly.” The first book, Nathaniel Talking, by Eloise Greenfield with illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, came out last year. This development is very interesting because here is a well-known author putting her energy into a book that is totally produced by a black small press, when she could have gone to a mainstream publisher. It won a Coretta Scott King Award for illustrations and an honor for the text. Their next book will be by Tom Feelings, an autobiographical picture book called Tommy’s Journey. I think this movement of established black authors going to small publishers will really bring some success to those publishers.

RS: Is this also happening in other communities?

KH: It isn’t quite happening the same way but what is happening is that books which had gone out of print are being brought back by small presses owned by people of color. The novels of Nicholasa Mohr and Yoshiko Uchida have been brought back this way. Nicolasa Mohr’s books are available from an Hispanic press called Arte Publico and Yoshiko Uchida’s are published by an Asian-American press called Creative Arts.

RS: How can people who are involved in writing, illustrating, or publishing multicultural books for children get together to network, support, and encourage each other?

KH: A man by the name of Charles Taylor just started something called Minority Publishers Exchange. Last month he sponsored a national conference of people of color in publishing, held in Madison. They are planning to do it annually. This is a great time for people of color to come together to generate ideas, talk about their struggles, and share information.

At the CCBC, we’re planning a two-day multicultural literature conference for next April during which a lot of issues will be discussed in formal and informal ways.

We’ll have lots of different points of view: authors, illustrators, editors, critics; all of the speakers will be people of color. We applied for and received a grant to offer fellowships to twenty people of color who are interested in writing and illustrating books for children to attend the conference. On the third day, there will be a day-long institute for writers and illustrators, open only to people of color, which will be led by Walter Dean Myers and five other conference speakers. It’ll be a time for them to share information and network; to teach each other and strategize. We’ve heard New York publishers say, when asked why they’re not printing more multicultural books, that they’ve found them all. We’ll see if that’s true at this conference.

RS:Any closing thoughts on the state of children’s book publishing?

KH: I’m excited by the possibilities of people of color establishing successful small presses, keeping the money in their own communities and having control over the content. As for the mainstream press, I sure hope it changes soon.