I heard about a nifty initiative last week, one that is worth talking about: The Stories for All Project, from First Book, an organization that puts books into the hands of children in need across the United States and Canada. Seeing the desperate need for children of color and other minorities to see themselves in the books they read, First Book will be purchasing $500,000 worth of new children’s books from each of two publishers, HarperCollins and Lee & Low.
Ever since Nancy Larrick sounded the alarm in her landmark Saturday Review essay, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” almost 50 years ago, it’s been commonly understood that child readers need windows and mirrors: that they need to see themselves reflected in the literature they read and that they need to see others, as well. Despite this understanding, though, despite the fact that the number of books by authors and illustrators of color and about children of color has grown, it is still a tiny fraction of the total output of the children’s-book industry.
The speculations as to the reasons for this paucity are legion and contentious. Publishers are racist. There are too few creators of color. Families of color don’t buy books. White people who do buy books don’t want books about children of color. It’s an unhappy, unpleasant blame game that typically goes round and round but rarely resolves into cohesive, forward-going action.
That’s why First Book’s commitment is so colossal: It is positive indication that publishing books about children of color can make a difference to the bottom line. First Book’s selection of providers is interesting and telling. Behemoth HarperCollins publishes books aplenty and has a number of creators of color and minority creators on their backlist: Kadir Nelson, Alma Flor Ada, Joseph Bruchac, Monica Brown, Joung Un Kim, E.B. Lewis and many more. They also have two specialized imprints dedicated to multicultural literature: Amistad, which focuses on the African-American experience, and Rayo, which focuses on the Latino experience. HarperCollins will have no difficulty filling their $500,000 order.
And neither will much, much smaller Lee & Low. Even though they publish a fraction of what HarperCollins does every year, their commitment to multicultural publishing means that just about every picture book they publish falls into The Stories for All Project’s bailiwick. According to Lee & Low’s website, their stated goal is “to meet the need for stories that children of color can identify with and that all children can enjoy.”
Just last year, Kirkus gave starred reviews to three of the six Lee & Low picture books we reviewed: Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic, a loving picture-book memoir about a Chinese-American family’s joyous annual celebrations; Drummer Boy of John John, a calypso-inflected, fictionalized account of the Trinidadian musician credited with the invention of the steel drum; and Dreaming Up, a stirring and inventive introduction to world architecture and architectural principles featuring a multicultural cast of children. And so far this year, we’ve loved Rainbow Stew, an ebullient gardening adventure featuring an African-American grandpa and his three grandkids.
So our congratulations go to HarperCollins and Lee & Low for their commitment to making books that all American children can find themselves in and to First Book, who have ensured that many of the children who need these books so badly will get them.
Vicky Smith is the Children’s & Teen Editor at Kirkus Reviews.