Every week I check Publishers Weekly‘s Rights Report, which tells of the past week’s book deals in the children’s and young adult publishing world, both modest and splashy. If you are at all interested in where the publishing industry is going or what your friends are selling and to whom, Rights Report is something you should always be reading. When it comes to selling books, you have to craft a pitch. First the author has to craft a pitch that will attract a literary agent who will sign the author to their list, and then that agent (or perhaps the author again) has to pitch that book to an editor in the hopes that the editor will buy it. What often happens is that they craft an “X Meets Y” pitch. As you might imagine, it means putting two popular things together–usually books, but sometimes film or television, to give readers an idea of what to expect. “Harry Potter meets Narnia” is no good–you want two things that you wouldn’t normally put together to get an idea of the genre-busting your author is doing, or perhaps one title that hearkens to the plot of the book being pitched and another that is more of a genre marker. It’s about shaping a reader’s expectation.
These pitches get really tired, especially when it’s everyone comparing their book to whatever the Twilight or Hunger Games of the moment is. But they are useful from a market standpoint. It tells you very quickly what you can expect, and it means an editor can tell right away whether a book is something they’re going to be interested in.
Diversity in children’s book publishing is A Thing these days, and I don’t have time to get into it, but we’ll fast forward to the part where publishing is actually getting better, but at times it feels like they are just doing diversity to do it, rather than viewing it as a) equitable, b) less boring than whitewashed (and hetero-washed, Christian-washed, cis-washed, etc) everything, and c) REALITY. Detractors like to claim that diversity doesn’t matter for many reasons, including the fact that “those people” don’t buy books, and publishers are in it for the money. Given that college-educated black women are the biggest reading demographic in the US, and black girls are the biggest child reading demographic in the UK (and with a similar societal makeup, I imagine it’s similar here–at the very least, black children read more than Hispanic/Latinx children when it comes to US statistics), not to mention that America is poised to become majority nonwhite in its child population very soon, it’s clear that that is not actually quite the case. They just aren’t interested in publishing books about people of color.
That is, unless it allows them to hop on something trendy. Or, as actor Amandla Stenberg says, they like “cash crop my cornrows,” or take advantage of black oppression to pad their wallets. In publishing, at the intersection of black pain and white capitalism is interest convergence, or the idea that “change benefitting people and communities of color only occurs when those interests also benefit Whites” (Alemán and Alemán, 2010). Only in this case, it’s not so much actual change as a limited scope blip. It will be change when books about all facets of black life are published, not just the advancement of adding police violence to the current roster of slavery and civil rights novels.
Recently, Angie Thomas’ debut YA novel The Hate U Give (named after Tupac’s THUG LIFE phrase) was published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins that, to their credit, is doing a better job than most at publishing more diverse books of all kinds. Here’s the synopsis:
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
Before that, there was Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s cowritten All American Boys, an alternating-perspectives novel about a teen beaten to a pulp by a cop and the witness to the crime, a white teen whose family is close friends with the cop’s.
The New York Times, a liberal and heavily white publication, thought this was really cool. It talked about how Thomas’ book was the focus of a 13-house auction, an almost unheard-of situation for a first-time, non-celebrity author. It also outlined many other young adult and middle grade books coming up or recently published that have to do with racialized violence. The Times, at least, notes the severity, gravity, and timeliness of the issues, not to mention the myriad sources of inspiration for these authors, such as Tamir Rice, Trayvon Johnson, and Oscar Grant, among others. But look at these Publishers Weekly announcements:
And, my favorite, reported on in multiple outlets:
Here we have the “X meets Y” pitch. But it’s not what it’s supposed to be, like An Abundance of Katherines meets Game of Thrones. No, it’s Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Black Lives Matter. Because Black Lives Matter is this hip, trendy thing with a certain genre feel to it, so now you know what to expect from the book. You know, people literally begging for their lives to be valued and not cut short by trigger-happy white cops is the same thing as being derivative of The Fault In Our Stars. If you look at the first image, which is from Publishers Weekly, and the third image, it says the book is inspired by AFRICA. The continent of Africa. Leaving out other issues, like how Africa is treated like a monoculture and a single nation, that is not the continent where #BlackLivesMatter is a thing. So which one of these announcements is more accurate? I have no idea, since the book isn’t finished yet, but regardless, the second two announcements deem the Black Lives Matter movement as legitimate as vampires or manic pixie dream girls. Protesting is lit AF, ya’ll.
I really hate when people talk about children’s literature as if all it’s there is to teach young people moral lessons and get them to grow up and read Real Literature, but in the passive and osmosis sense, books do teach lessons. In that way, Alemán and Alemán’s discussion of interest convergence in various educational concepts can be applied to publishing’s grabbing ahold of BLM as if it’s a marketing tool. Multiculturalism is a “learning tool” for whites, after all, and reading a book and being sad about a black character’s death is a great way to get “credit” for being a BLM ally without actually participating in protests, political action, petition signing, striking, or anything else where your name or likeness is evidence. This is because white people “simply cannot envision the personal responsibility and the potential sacrifice…that true equality for blacks will require the surrender of racism-granted privileges for whites” (Bell, 1980). It doesn’t mean that discerning readers, especially black ones, will not see through that lip service-level commitment to publishing diverse books to the way BLM is treated as quaint, hijacking it for euphemistic purposes and delegitimizing it as a serious, life-or-death movement.
Alemán, Jr., E. and Alemán, S.M. (2010). Do Latin@ interests always have to ‘converge’ with White interests?: (Re)claiming racial realism and interest‐convergence in critical race theory praxis. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13:1, pp. 1-21.
Bell, D.A. (1980). Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 93:3, pp. 518-533