By René Saldaña, Jr.
I’ve avoided writing this piece long enough. Number one reason is that politically I’m a conservative, and the last thing I want to do is to appear as though I’m playing the race card. Which I’m not, though it might look like it. Doing so’s a cheap and underhanded thing to do. So I don’t. Second reason: what I’m tossing out there can be dangerous to my career as a writer, I’ve been told, because of who I’m aiming it at: the very folks who buy my books, or won’t due to my brazenness: librarians and fellow educators, my bread and butter. (I trust in the educator, though, enough to know that if we are about anything we are about growth through honest self-reflection; it’s my hope that this piece will serve as a catalyst for such). Third reason: during my own reflection over the last couple of years, mulling over whether I should or shouldn’t put this observation to paper, one of the cons was that maybe it’s just sour grapes I’m dishing. Ultimately, it’s not. Not even just a little.
My sincere desire is to talk from the heart, to share this heavy load I’ve been carrying, and to reciprocate. I’ll do my part to take on the equally heavy burden librarians and educators have been carrying for far too long. To, arm in arm, move in a direction upward when we’re talking about race, in particular race in children’s and YA publishing, a hot topic to be sure.
Let me tell you a story: I’m attending a librarians’ convention. I’ve been asked to sit on a panel or two, and at this point in my story I’ve met those obligations. Like happens at these functions, as a writer with a new book under my belt (best I can remember it’s A Good Long Way published by Piñata Books, an imprint of Arte Público Press), I’m also committed to sit for an hour at a table to sign copies of my latest. This is a very awkward thing for me to do. I really don’t like this part of my job. I mean, really, who am I? I’m not a top-tier author, and so I realize I won’t get the throngs of fans begging for my signature. (I found this out while sitting at another table, this one in D.C. at the National Book Festival in 2005, and I happened to be sitting next to Mary Pope Osborne, whose line was unimaginably long; I had to ask my wife, who was pushing our son in a stroller, and my sister-in-law to act as my line). Talk about eating humble pie. I get it. If a couple of teachers or librarians line up for my signature I count myself the most fortunate writer in the world. This time is no different from other times. I’m resolved to sit my time out, and if I get that librarian or two, I’ll make it a point to let them know how lucky I am to meet them.
I truly feel that way. My love for libraries and librarians goes back a long, long way. Back to when I was checking out the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Little House on the Prairie during my elementary school years, and later books on UFOs, lost treasures, and the book that kept me in the reading act, Piri Thomas’s Stories from El Barrio during middle school, and throughout high school and college, to this day even, visiting our public library with my children. Along with my parents and a small handful of teachers, I owe librarians the bulk of my reading life. This is why, in the end, I feel I need to write this essay: I owe librarians dearly.
So, back to the story: I’m sitting there with Arte Público’s representative, and I do get the one or two curious librarians who ask about my work. I could tell them that I’ve published three other books with Random House, that I’ve published several short stories in several anthologies edited by Gallo, Springer, and Scieszka, but I don’t. The only book that matters to me is the one I just published. It’s my favorite book. Not my favorite because it is my most recent. It’s really and truly my favorite of all the titles I’ve published to date. I love A Good Long Way for so many reasons, but that’s the stuff for another essay. These librarians are kind and buy a copy for their collections, are already thinking of which students will benefit from this book most (and it’s not just Latino kids they’re telling me about).
From the time I sat, I’ve taken notice of the author two tables down from me. I actually just presented with her. Undeniably a rock star in the field. The kind of author for whom I’d stand in line to get her autograph. I know her personally, too. She’s a genuinely awesome person. I’ve used her work in my graduate adolescent lit classes. My students love her. I understand why these librarians are in line to get her signature and for a chance at a word or two, maybe a picture if time allows.
What I don’t get, though, is that not a one of these librarians in this other author’s line chances to look up in my direction, not that I can tell from my time at the table, anyhow. Not a one notices that just two tables down is another writer, one of color, a conversation that has been pushed to the fore recently? The Myers’ father and son team each wrote brilliant editorials for the New York Times (in the middle of me writing and rewriting this piece, wouldn’t you know it? The world of children’s and YA writing is shaken to the foundation at the news of Walter Dean Myers’ death and among his last acts was to force us to have this difficult conversation, so thanks to him). Others like Monica Olivera have added to that conversation in a blogpost on NBC Latino, Matt de la Peña and the folks over at Lee & Low have ably challenged us to consider the state of children’s and YA publishing regarding race. Lee & Low on Twitter, especially, has rocked that boat. But it was a discussion we were having back then, too. Albeit mostly amongst ourselves, we writers and publishers and teachers and librarians of color. So it’s been brewing a long enough time.
So, what I’ve heard librarians say over the last decade and a half on my visits is that there are so many Latino children, and how unfortunate that there are so few Latino authors publishing books for them. “Just look at how excited these kids get,” they tell me, “to find one of their own publishing books.” It’s true, they do get excited to meet writers of color; I’ve seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears. As a side note: I’ve also seen kids jump for joy at meeting white authors.
Can you tell I’m purposely going off on rabbit trails? I’m avoiding getting to the point again.
But whatever. There’s an urgency. We need to get beyond this hurdle. We need to courageously speak about race. Confront it head on. We’re told this also by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in one of his early speeches at the outset of his work for the Obama administration. We must face our shortcomings if we are to get to that place Dr. King dared us to dream about alongside him.
Anyway, these librarians have told me that there is so little of this material, and what there is of it is so hard to find.
Okay, I’m jumping in, confronting, being courageous, mostly trusting my readers to know I’m out for all our best interests, and especially for those we serve, our students: so,
NO! this material is not hard to find.
Simply look up and two tables down from where you’re standing, there I am. At that point in my career I’ve got some six books to my name. There. I. Am.
And if you think I’m an idiot, especially now that I’m telling you this, then do this other thing and you’ll know I’m right: walk up and down those aisles that usually are nowhere near the major publishers, the ones relegated to the edges of the main floor. They’re the small, independent presses. The outliers, in so many ways. You’ll know them because they’re the ones who don’t give out ARCs or free copies of books. Not because they don’t want to but because it’s not in their budgets to do so. Take 20 minutes per stall, look through their catalogues, their titles. For goodness’ sakes, talk to the reps, who are usually the publishers and editors themselves (when it’s not both of them, it’s either Bobby or Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press manning their booth), and these reps will explain clearly what they have for you and your readers. They’re eager, as eager as you and I, to help all children reach their reading potential. Next, buy from them directly. Come ready with cash, checks, or cards. They’ll take any method of payment.
I’m not saying that the Bigs don’t publish authors of color. They obviously do. Random House has me and several other Latinos on their list. So has Dial. Scholastic. Little, Brown. S&S. Etc. They publish Black writers, and Asian writers. The difference is, though, that the smaller presses focus all their attention on writers of color, so they are experts at it. Arte Público Press/Piñata Books is one. Another is Cinco Puntos Press out of El Paso (of Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood fame but before that a picture book titled The Story of Colors by Subcomandante Marcos with magnificent illustrations by Domitila Domínguez, a book I’ve yet to find shelved in the libraries I’ve visited, even in deep South Texas where the majority of the population is Latino, Mexican American, and Mexican to be exact). Lee & Low, that sometime ago acquired Children’s Book Press and that recently started Shen Books, a new imprint that “focuses on introducing young readers to the cultures of Asia,” is yet another. The list of them, admittedly short—nevertheless, these few presses publish nothing but books by and about people of color. For all readers, but in particular readers of color.
The books are there.
All you have to do is to look for them.
And when you think you’ve found them all, look again. Because we’re still writing the books, publishers big and small are still publishing them. All we need is for you to look and look and look again until you can’t look no more, which likely means you’ve retired and you’re no longer pushing books into kids hands formally. But a librarian is a librarian is a librarian. You’ll be giving books to kids any chance you get ’til the day you die.
This is why I know I can write a piece like this, harsh as it might seem: because you’re educators first and foremost. And you’ll forgive me my bluntness. But we are not the focal point of this conversation, our children are. So we are either proactive and talk and then do, or we stand in the way of the progress necessary. Let’s be the former.
René Saldaña, Jr., is the author of the bilingual picture book Dale, dale, dale: Una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers. He’s an associate professor of Language and Literature in the College of Education at Texas Tech University in West Texas. He’s also the author of several books for young readers, among them The Jumping Tree, Finding Our Way: Stories, The Whole Sky Full of Stars, A Good Long Way, and the bilingual Mickey Rangel detective series. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.