Promoting Diverse Books for Every Reader: The “Cheat Sheet” and More
At the standing-room-only #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel at BookCon, panelist and award-winning author Grace Lin promised a “cheat sheet” to help attendees sell diverse books to readers who may not otherwise think those books are “for them.” This idea grew out of her own experience as a bookseller trying to broaden her customers’ horizons and helped her immensely when her own books were published. Debbie Reese of the must-read review site American Indians in Children’s Literature kindly shared her copy of the “cheat sheet,” and I have included it here with special thanks to Grace Lin for coming up with this idea and putting together the attractive graphic.
Grace uses the example of her own Newbery-honor Where The Mountain Meets the Moon, writing, “Instead of, ‘It’s about a girl in Ancient China trying to find good fortune with Chinese folktales woven in,” Try, “It’s an adventure story! The main character saves a dragon and they travel together on a great journey!” She goes on to talk up 16 other diverse books, from picture books to YA, published in the past few years, along with classics Jingle Dancer and We Were Here.
I would like to add two points to this excellent resource. One is that anyone can “try this at home,” and not just with the 17 books on the cheat sheet. At the afternoon multicultural publishers’ panel, John Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press made the important point that nearly half of the diverse books counted each year by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center are published by small presses. All 17 books on Grace’s list, however, come from the large publishing corporations. If small presses — which were committed to multicultural publishing before it became fashionable (if it ever does become fashionable) — are to continue their mission, they need us to booktalk their titles too. The same goes for diverse authors who have not enjoyed their publishers’ support, or who have not been invited to these kinds of panels. If they are going to be able to continue writing for young people, they need our love too. So here’s my mini-cheat sheet, beginning with my own small press classic, Gringolandia, and drawn from the books I’ve reviewed for The Pirate Tree.
Instead of, “It’s a historical novel about a teenage refugee from the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, trying to reconnect with his father, a recently released political prisoner,” Try, “A teenager struggles to reconnect with his father who was imprisoned and tortured by a brutal dictator– while trying not to end up in the same situation.” This pitch should connect with fans of dystopian literature whatever their ethnic background — and show also that dystopias exist in all kinds of places and eras.
“After escaping with her mother from a bloody war, a teenage girl has to escape from her mother’s abuse.” (The Good Braider by Terry Farish)
“Her bosses and elders tell her to hate the newcomers to her community, but a spirited 10-year-old girl wants to be friends and believes the newcomers can save everyone.” (Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes)
“A teenage boy trying to escape a brutal war encounters a former enemy who may or may not now be his friend.” (The Weaver’s Scar by Brian Crawford)
“When a wealthy academy uses under-the-table methods to woo a talented basketball player, he has to decide where his loyalties and values lie.” (Next by Kevin Waltman)
You can do this too! If you’d like to annotate a book — yours or anyone else’s — feel free to do so in the comments, and I’ll add it to the post. I may also round up more of my Pirate Tree reviews at the end of the year.
And now the second point: In her blog post, Grace talked about her misgivings related to the cheat sheet, that “by describing the book without the multicultural label it could be construed that I was ashamed of it.” I would add that, in a way, talking about books without mentioning their setting or aspects of the characters is much like whitewashing their covers, or creating covers without any identifying images at all (as in, for instance, the cover of Rogue). However, a huge advantage of booktalking over cover design is that what we say can easily change, depending on our audience. There’s no shame in reaching for commonalities when trying to get outsiders to connect with books that show them the world outside their experience (what Rudine Sims Bishop has called “window books”). That doesn’t preclude a different approach when talking to young people who share the cultural background and experiences depicted in the stories (what Bishop has termed “mirror books”). Pitching books differently for different audiences still gives you the same book, which can then serve as a touchstone for dialogue and understanding.