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Multicultural Books in the Marketplace: If it’s a good story, people will like it!

September 20, 2010

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

Random House Children’s Books recently hosted a brainstorming session to find out what we can do to help boost the presence (and sales) of multicultural books in the marketplace. Attendees of this conference call included author, Mitali Perkins, eight Indie booksellers from across the country, and RHCB representatives from all areas of the publishing business (editorial, marketing, and sales).

As a sales representative, I constantly attempt to combat objections from buyers, particularly with regard to such titles (I can’t sell XYZ book because: it has a character of color on the cover, my customers can’t relate to it, our customer base does not include that population, etc.). I viewed this call as a way that I could learn/understand more about my buyers’ concerns (and how to counter them), as well as a collaborative effort to brainstorm ways to market multicultural titles and bring them to a broader audience. Often gatekeepers (buyers, librarians, etc.) are influenced more by their own opinions [of what kids want to read] rather than those that kids may actually have. Mitali began the call with an introduction that lead to a wonderful discussion – she spoke about the three assumptions of gatekeepers:

Tokenism – the idea that if one reads one multicultural title, it covers or speaks for that topic/culture/section of society.

Apartheid – the idea that kids will only read books with characters like themselves.

Xenophobia – the idea that (in this case) American kids don’t want to read books about kids in other countries/cultures.

So, what exactly does ‘multicultural’ mean? Early in the call, we defined the broad ‘multicultural’ term to include books with authors or subject matter from different races, religions, sexual orientation and gender.

With regard to publishers, booksellers feel that the pub date is not as important to Indie bookstores as we may think. For example, there is a tendency to inundate the market with African American titles in January and historic female titles in February (for placement in Black History and Women’s History month promotions). In doing so, this a.) unfairly labels such titles (i.e. assigned school reading) and b.) creates a competition between which title ‘best’ represents such topic, leading to lower sales of equally good books. The consensus? Spread the publication of such titles throughout the year.

With regard to the aesthetics of multicultural titles, the following suggestions were made by booksellers:

  • Don’t make such titles look so ‘serious’. This often creates an association that such books are for school reading = boring.
  • Photographic covers don’t work as well for multicultural titles – books with more nuanced covers would work better (the exceptions to this rule are picturebooks and early chapter books).

Some other discussion points that came about:

  • Readership should be perceived as any child looking for a good book, not just readers in the group portrayed.
  • Overemphasizing multicultural titles can work against them – the more you say about a book to a potential teen customer, the more they resist buying.
  • Categorizing or labeling multicultural titles does not help with promoting them, but seems to stigmatize them. Several booksellers stated that the only time they categorized such titles was when organizing books for bookfairs.
  • A few of the booksellers create Global/Around the World books sections to highlight strong multicultural picturebook titles.
  • Use book talks and bookfairs to highlight strong multicultural titles.

To sum it up, all of the booksellers agreed that, regardless of the subject matter, if it is a good story, people will like it. And, it is extremely important to stock books with a variety of viewpoints from different backgrounds.

For more information on this topic, you’ll find that Mitali Perkins’ blog (Mitali’s Fire Escape) is rich with conversation, links and articles pertaining to multicultural books:

So, what are your thoughts and ideas on this topic? What are some of your favorite multicultural titles? We’d love for you to share them here!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    September 20, 2010 8:41 am

    Great post, and very interesting! As a middle school teacher, I try to have a wide variety of books in my classroom. I have noticed, however, that books about different cultures that are not represented in my classroom rarely get read. I do think some of it has to do with the cover artwork. An appealing cover goes a long way with teens.

    My students do love Walter Dean Meyers. He is an excellent writer and really engages middle schoolers with his stories. Gary Soto is another good one. Their stories seem to bride any “cultural gap” there is, and all people can enjoy their books.

  2. September 20, 2010 9:42 am

    As a pediatrician, parent, reader, and now author of two multicultural MG/YA novels, I am always frustrated by the lack of humorous, adventurous, or mysterious multicultural titles (Mitali Perkins recently wrote a great post about this:
    Must multicultural (or LGBT for that matter) titles always be heavy, serious and sad? The answer, of course is no – if publishers allow room for characters who yes, happen to be multicultural but also, say, happen to be very silly, or say, sword-fighting experts. Not every multicultural book needs to be about oppression or racism! Some books with multicultural protagonists don’t even have (gasp) ostensibly multicultural authors – Blue Bailett’s “Chasing Vermeer” or Michael Buckley’s “NERDS” are examples. Other favorite (nonserious) titles of my 8year old include Grace Lin’s “Year of the Rat” and “Year of the Dog” and Lenore Look’s “Alvin Ho” and “Ruby Lu” books. But of course, there is an important role for books that explicitly talk about racism or xenophobia, and among those, my 6year old’s favorite is “Ruby Bridges Goes to School” from Scholastic. See here:

  3. Angela K Sherrill permalink
    September 21, 2010 12:29 pm

    An important post, thank you for sharing.

    Our Best Loved Multicultural Title of 2010 (so far) is:

    Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai

    I think the intriguing cover helps to keep this one approachable for a variety of readers and our young reviewers rate the book very highly.

    Shooting Kabul N. H. Senzai
    I really loved this book. It was about a boy and his family escaping from Afghanistan before 9/11. Everything is going well, until his little sister gets lost in the scramble to get on a bus out. Once they get to America, the boy tries to figure out a way to get his sister back, while suffering teasing at school. I highly recommend it to anyone older than ten.
    Reviewed by: Anne Age:13 For: 57th Street Books, Chicago, IL

    One of myall0time favorite YA books happens to be a great multi-cultural title:

    Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

    The cover is not the best, but what’s inside is a thoughtful and realistic story for all teens struggling to find their place in the world.

  4. September 24, 2010 2:18 pm

    I was very interested to hear the perspective of booksellers about this topic. As a reader, I seek out books that allow me to live for a while in a foreign place, and I remember doing that as a young reader, too, so I was surprised that it’s at all difficult to sell these titles. In any case, if I were compiling a library for a young reader, I would start with Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Marsden (a beautiful story about a girl in rural Thailand) and I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson (a great horse story set in 14th-century Mongolia). And I would try to find a copy of one of the first books I read that was not about an American character: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.

  5. Erik permalink
    September 24, 2010 4:02 pm

    I couldn’t agree more about making titles look “serious”. My daugher is a hard-core reader and loves multicultural books but she isn’t necessarily looking for a gloomy story about a sad kid (go figure). There’s a little caldecott section on her bookshelf of perpetually untouched gift books full of sad faces.

  6. October 3, 2010 12:11 pm

    Very nice.
    I will be you subscribe ) Thanks !


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