Segregation and Shelf Space
by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Author and literacy advocate Cynthia Leitich SmithI'm torn on the issue of presenting books divided by the ethnic groups of at least some of their main characters. I worry that it serves to marginalize them, that people will think of "books" and "multicultural books," like the latter are a trend that will pass or a category to be held to an inferior quality standard.

Yet as a child I remember searching to no avail for a book about a contemporary Native woman to be the subject of my third grade report on a famous, historical person (after much deliberation, I went with Sacajewea over Pocahontas — neither known for her service to her own people).

Today, still, too few outstanding books are published that reflect any particular community. This is worth saying another way: publishing any number of of books inspired by a specific community is not the same thing as publishing enough quality books inspired by a specific community.

Good reasons exist for readers to seek out quality books featuring characters of a specific group or books by an author or illustrator from a particular background. After quality of writing and illustration, it's a consideration in purchasing for librarians, teachers, and care givers interested in providing a collection that reflects diversity. Readers sometimes become interested in a particular topic — like the Trail of Tears or the Underground Railroad or the Holocaust — and that inspires them to read related fiction. Better yet, they sometimes fall in love with books by a particular author or illustrator, regardless of their hue or the themes their work explores.

I strongly suggest that everyone adopt my policy: double shelving. If an excellent picture book features, say, Chinese American characters and themes, list it and place it on the shelf with excellent other picture books and with other books that have Chinese American characters and themes.

Wake Up Call:

The publication of books related to people from underrepresented communities continues to lag. Despite a handful of big hits, the numbers haven't changed much in the past twenty years. Does that mean the books aren't being published at all? No, of course not. I don't mean to overstate it. But increasingly, lists are dominated by what is seen as "big bookstore" type books, the kind most likely to turn a quick profit. Multicultural books, in contrast, usually often have a slower take-off, often fueled by word of mouth.

If you support diversity in children's books, if in fact you believe in the publication of quality children's books at all, it is absolutely essential that you vote with your dollars in support of quality mainstream and quality multicultural books.

Buy them for yourself, for gifts. Encourage teachers to integrate them into the classroom. Encourage libraries to embrace diversity. Check out multicultural and other quality books from the library. Talk to your friends and family members. Support librarians and teachers who are doing good work in this area. Become an advocate.