Publishing and Resistance
I’ve often joked that I write historical fiction because I’m “historical.” The YA field is notoriously youth-oriented, and when I attempted a foray into submitting picture books last year, I came to realize that youth (and maleness) rule, and us grandmotherly types are dinosaurs facing extinction if not already there. As a result, I try to avoid any information that might reveal my age or make it evident to any reader with basic math skills.
That said, I like to believe that having lived for a while gives me experience and perspective on current events. One of the reasons I’ve become a broken record (itself a retro reference to those brittle LPs) in advocating for small presses is that I know the role small presses played in previous eras when children’s book creators of color and progressive authors had a hard time getting published.
My formative years as a writer were the early 1980s when, fresh out of university, I became a history teacher while working on what I believed would be the great American novel. Forget about the fact that I never took a creative writing class until I had already started teaching. I had a story that wouldn’t let me go, and I rewrote it maybe a half dozen times before I found an agent who suggested, in the spring of 1983, that I put this adult novel aside and write young adult. She found my teenage characters to be far more authentic and compelling than their adult counterparts, and she gave me a list of books to read that would inspire me and guide me in the direction of salable YA.
Most of these books had appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and would be considered problem novels — books like Go Ask Alice and its spinoffs. As an outcast teenager I had already embraced stories of other outcasts like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and tales of society’s brutality and corruption like Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Those were the kinds of books I wanted to write, and I set about writing a reverse Horatio Alger riches-to-rags story based on the experiences of some of my students. Soon I had a manuscript that my agent loved and prepared to send out to publishers.
Neither of us, however, counted on the seismic cultural shifts that accompanied the electoral victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Because it can take two years from the time a manuscript is accepted to the time it comes out, many problem novels and socially critical works were already in the pipeline at the time of the election. And my reading list at the Brooklyn Public Library included many older works that had come out in paperback the year after their hardcover publication. So when I handed my agent my finished manuscript in spring 1984 and an outline of another set during the 1979 Nicaraguan literacy crusade, we had few inklings that my subject matter and writing had become unsalable.
The 1980s were the era of Sweet Valley High, the light romances set in middle-class suburbs with few if any characters of color. Until the end of the decade with Rita Williams-Garcia’s groundbreaking Blue Tights, YA books with diverse characters and edgy, socially critical content had pretty much disappeared. There were many reasons for this — budget cuts that reduced school and library sales, the growth of chain bookstores in suburban areas, the conservative zeitgeist of the Reagan years. During this time, I gravitated toward small presses that published the kinds of books I wanted to read, most notably Curbstone Press, which published writers and stories from Latin America. I learned about the challenges they faced, and continue to face. And when I finally rewrote that adult novel into an eco-thriller between 2000 and 2003, the first publisher to which I submitted it was my beacon for cultural resistance and human rights activism in the 1980s — Curbstone Press.
The 1980s wasn’t the first time trends changed and critical literature disappeared from the mainstream. Several scholars, most recently Eric Bennett in Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War, have pointed out that the State Department and the CIA actively supported the creation of MFA programs to urge young writers not to emulate the socialist authors of the 1930s who wrote big books of class and ethnic conflict, but rather to focus on personal concerns and experiments in form. Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, with its breakout style and veiled critique of Communism, exemplified these changing preoccupations in the realm of children’s books.
The shocking election results last fall caught me with two YA manuscripts in progress. Having lost my foothold in the industry after Reagan’s election, I worried about their fate, and I worried also about my younger friends and colleagues who had books in the pipeline or were about to sign contracts and who aren’t aware of the trivialization of YA literature that occurred after 1980. But so far, no one I know has lost a fiction contract or book because of the political change. Books by Own Voices authors critical of racist policing continue to appear, and one, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, now sits at the top of the bestseller list.
Why might this time be different? Why might we avoid a slide into light apolitical children’s books, or high-concept books with a right-wing authoritarian worldview that stresses conformity, obedience, and money defining a person’s worth? Why might socially critical books, or books depicting young people in resistance, sell better to publishers and readers?
I see several reasons for hope. One is that we’ve already experienced more than three decades of the Sweet Valley High phenomenon, and while light romances and other “entertainments,” in the words of Graham Greene, will continue to sell, the success of books like The Hate U Give point to pent-up demand for more diverse books and weightier subject matter. The second reason is that, thanks to the We Need Diverse Books movement and the writing of diversity scholars such as Debbie Reese, Edi Campbell, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Zetta Elliott, and the Reading While White librarians, we’re more aware of the implicit messages that books send and the impact of bad representation, no representation, and the exclusion of Own Voices writers.
The third reason for hope is that, while Reagan won in a landslide and a “wave election,” the current regime took over without even a plurality of the vote, but due to a quirk in the Constitution designed to give more power to small states and states that had maintained slavery. The 2016 election feels more like a hostile corporate takeover than a democratic election, and the result is a resistance that is large and hungry for stories to sustain itself. If the mainstream publishers don’t provide those stories, smaller publishers will. At this point, it will take an act of raw government power in the form of censorship on the state and/or federal level to shut us down, and we’re prepared to put up a fight with our words and our wallets.