This week two mainstream newspapers discussed books for young readers. I found the contrasting coverage instructive.
The Washington Post discussed a glut of books; the New York Times described a deficiency.
Swooning for Romance
The WaPo article covered the Swoon Reads website, on which Macmillan "allows anyone to submit a completed [YA romance] manuscript directly to its easy-to-use Web site" and makes the mss available for free to as many registered members as wish to . . . swoon.
Swoon Reads functions as a combination slush pile and focus group, with the membership community rating every book they read. (Macmillan is careful to make no promises, but top-rated books may be considered for print and e-book publication and sale. Indeed, one story will graduate onto the Macmillan print list this year, with a first publication run of 100,000 copies.)
Swoon, of course, took advantage of a trend that had already gone viral: a vast network of readers who craved teen e-romances, and who had already developed ways to publicize the ones they liked best.
The WaPo lede asked "What do [children's book] readers want?" Two days later, the New York Times offered two op eds that gave a sad answer: something nobody's publishing.
The op eds were written by Walter Dean Myers (Newbery and Printz award-winning author of more than 50 books for young readers) and his son Christopher Myers (Caldecott and King-winning author and illustrator).
|Christopher Myers illustration for NYTimes|
Both editorials referenced statistics published through recent years by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education. (Look here for their complete statistics for Children's Books By and About People of Color Published in the U.S.)
W.D.Myers'editorial focuses on this particular finding: out of an estimated 3,200 children's books published in 2013, only 93 were primarily about Africans or African-Americans.
As the CCBC itself notes, whether considering books about African-Americans, American Indians, Asian or Asian-Pacific Americans, or Latinos, "The news in terms of sheer numbers continues to be discouraging: the total number of books about people of color—regardless of quality, regardless of accuracy or authenticity—was less than eight percent of the total number of titles we received. Think about that. Think about it terms of what you know about the changing demographics of our nation."
And if you check the CCBC's charts, you'll see that the number of African-American writers published in a given year is also low, and actually seems to be shrinking. The whole industry seems to be failing at discovering/developing new writers of color.
The apartheid of children's literature
And W.D. Myers observes that even when a story's main character is black, he or she is often primarily a victim, "struggling to overcome either slavery or racism."
As a child reader, W. D. Myers could never seem to find his ordinary self—his life, his experience—in books. And all these years later, young readers of color still can't.
Does the publishing industry even know how to publish for readers of color?
Are editors cautious and reluctant, because they simply don't know what to publish? How many children's publishing editors and agents and marketing people can even claim to recognize the authentic "everyday reality" of children of color?
And is there really no market for these books? Or is the market simply untapped?
Pondering this, I clicked back to the WaPo article.
Using the Wisdom of Crowds to Pick the Next Teen Romance Bestseller
That's how the WaPo described the Swoon Reads approach. Macmillan senior vice president and publisher Jean Feiwel explains that her team created Swoon to discover new stories and let them find their market in a way that costs less in time and money. "Okay, I thought, there are authors out there . . . . I feel there’s a lot of talent out there that can’t get to us.”
Could the Swoon Reads concept be adapted to find new writers of color, and stories in which young readers of color can find themselves?
True, Swoon hopped onto an already thriving romance-reading network.
But could networks for other genres be grown from seed? Could major presses follow the Swoon model to discover and test-market other genres of books?
Could today's young Walter Deans and Christophers learn to find themselves in ebooks?