ALA 2016: Highlights of Diversity Panel Discussion

"Not Your Granny’s Dinner Conversation: Diversity, Race, Sex and Gender” featured seven children’s literature experts, all addressing tough questions and hot topics.
left to right: Jamie Campbell Naidoo, Pat Enciso, Dan Santat, Edith Campbell, Ashley Perez, Kelly Starling Lyons, Jason Low, Varian Johnson

Left to right: Jamie Campbell Naidoo, Pat Enciso, Dan Santat, Edith Campbell, Ashley Pérez,
Kelly Starling Lyons, Jason Low, Varian Johnson

“We’re here to enrich children’s lives and be responsible about it,” said Varian Johnson, author of The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2014) as he spoke to a large audience of librarians, authors, and educators at a panel discussion at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Orlando.  Edith Campbell, assistant librarian at Indiana State University, moderated the Sunday morning session, “Not Your Granny’s Dinner Conversation: Diversity, Race, Sex and Gender” featuring seven children’s literature experts. Campbell kicked off the discussion by asking, “What role does being a publisher, author, scholar, or librarian have in monitoring accuracy in children’s literature?” Johnson encouraged authors to do research and “get it right.” Author Kelly Starling Lyons pointed out that the number of African American characters in books for children increased last year, but the number of books written by African American authors has not risen. She asked librarians to be “intentional in the books we buy for children” and make sure to purchase books written by people of color. Building on Lyons’s statements, Dr. Jamie Campbell Naidoo, associate professor at the University of Alabama, warned librarians not to assume a book with a favorable review is culturally authentic. He urged reviewers to “do your due diligence to make sure the books you review are culturally accurate.”   Left to right: Dan Santat, Pat Enciso, Jamie Campbell Naidoo

Left to right: Dan Santat, Pat Enciso, Jamie Campbell Naidoo

    Author and illustrator Dan Santat reminded authors that their words “carry a lot of weight.” He said that “some readers want every book to represent all people.” Santat noted that the writing community is nervous about tackling certain issues. There is a fear of being “skewered on social media.” Campbell followed up by asking if the panel thought things had changed since the publication of A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books, stressed the “importance of vetting books, especially ones that take place in the past.” Low shared that at Lee & Low Books, “We are never under the illusion that we are experts at everything.” He advised publishers to bring in experts to help check for accuracy. Staff at Lee & Low recently took part in a diversity training program which made them aware of some of their “gaps and blind spots.” The next part of the session explored schools and whether educators are prepared for difficult conversations around difficult texts in the classroom. Professor Pat Enciso from Ohio State University suggested that while “teachers are working tirelessly to meet state and federal demands” their experience with “diverse literature has been diminishing, not expanding.” Enciso used The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (Holt, 1995) as an example. In schools, the book is often treated as “a nice story about a black family going through a hard time.” It’s not read and discussed as a story about racism. Enciso encouraged librarians to partner with teachers and curriculum directors to select material, provide a framework for literature, and facilitate conversations. left to right: Ashley Perez, Kelly Starling Lyons, Jason Low, Dan Santat, Pat Enciso

Left to right: Ashley Pérez, Kelly Starling Lyons, Jason Low, Dan Santat, Pat Enciso

Next, the discussion turned to the topic of author visits. Ashley Pérez, author of Out of Darkness (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015) said that she wants students to leave her author visits with the “powerful sense that every story matters.” Students should understand that “their stories should take up space in the world.” Johnson built on that idea, noting “Students should see themselves in books.” He hopes his author visits “inspire students to be creators and thinkers.” Campbell brought up the topic of the recent Orlando nightclub shootings and the role libraries have in representing marginalized groups. She then posed the question, “What conversations do we need to have in our libraries?” Naidoo responded, “We wear our rainbow pins and our black armbands and talk about inclusivity, but are we doing the work in our libraries?” He suggested that sometimes librarians are afraid of what parents will say. Naidoo encouraged librarians to work in tandem with cultural groups and get input from the community. “Our role is to serve the people. Are we really serving all the people?” As the session came to an end, Campbell asked, “How can libraries and publishers collaborate to reduce the possibility of challenges?” An answer was offered without pause. “Someone will always find something objectionable in a book,” stated Low. “Make sure the book has a lot of good things about it making it worth fighting for.” Naidoo’s advice for the audience was to look for allies in the community. An hour was not enough time to explore the many questions and topics moderator Campbell had planned. However, the session served as an important conversation starter on the topics of diversity, responsibility, and accuracy in children’s literature for the many librarians, educators, and authors in attendance. Cathy Potter is a school librarian at Falmouth Elementary School in Falmouth, ME.

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