Last week, author and librarian Betsy Bird
posted this on Twitter
: "At the risk of sounding desperate, can anyone name me just ONE middle
grade novel published in 2013 starring an African-American boy?"
She later followed up with a post
listing all the books published in
2013 featuring African-American boys as main characters. If I'm counting correctly,
the number is somewhere around eight. Maybe ten, when you count some of the small publishers.
You have no idea how depressed this makes me feel.
There are a lot of theories why these books aren't being published.
Maybe authors aren't writing them. Maybe editors and agents aren't acquiring them.
Maybe readers don't want them.
While this makes me worry about the state of the industry, I find
myself first worrying about my daughter. My nieces. And especially my nephew.
I grew up in a time when there were very few books for young people featuring
people of color. There's no way to describe how it feels NOT to see yourself in
books. There's no way to describe how it feels NOT to see other authors that look
like you writing books. As someone that had wanted to be an author since I was in
second grade, it was...crushing.
Hell, it's still crushing. Have you ever scanned the shelves at your local bookstore? If the real world were like the YA section, I wouldn't exist.
Knocking on wood—I have a new book coming out next year. It's my first
middle grade, and while it features an ensemble cast, the main character is a
thirteen-year-old African-American boy. As of today, it's titled THE GREAT
GREENE HEIST (published by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic
, edited by Executive
Editor Cheryl Klein
). It's about...well, a heist.
(Sorry, but I don't do well with describing my own books. And while I'm
at it, sorry for all the disclaimers, but in publishing, nothing is ever set in
stone until the book's on the shelves.)
Selfishly, I worry that no one will buy the book. Either people will think
it's not relevant to them because it features a black boy. Or they won't buy it
because they'll think it's about slavery or racism. Or people won't buy it
because it's NOT true Black History Month material. (Or it could just suck, but that's a worry shared by the majority of authors.)
I try not to obsess about things like this, but given the industry's
track record, can you blame me?
I also worry that with such a small sampling of books that feature
African-American boys, my book will have to do double or triple or quadruple
duty. Being a fun caper novel won't be enough. It'll have to be more. More
literary. More commercial. More accessible. More poignant.
I know this is crazy talk. This is the type of talk that puts authors
in a forever do-loop with a manuscript. I know this—but still, I worry.
I feel fortunate that this book is being published by Cheryl and the
folks at AAL /Scholastic. I trust that they'll make the right decisions about
the cover—whether it features a brown face or not. I trust that they'll do what is best to get the book in the hands of all readers, not just ones
with brown faces. (And please, please read this blog post about judging covers
by Andrea Davis Pinkney, vice president and editor at large of Scholastic's Trade Books. Even as an author of color, I struggle with this issue.)
I'm working on a new project now, and it's tough going. But in a day or
so, I'll try to forget about publishing statistics and book covers and
authorial responsibility and all the other crap that can weight an author down.
And then I'll get back to work.