Wednesday, March 6, 2013

NYPL Diversity Panel Recap

Connie Hsu, Sofia Quintero,
Zetta Elliott, Betsy Bird

(Photo courtesy of
This past weekend, authors Zetta Elliott, Sofia Quintero, and I sat on a panel discussion hosted by librarian and School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird. The panel, titled Diversity and the State of the Children’s Book, was part of the Children’s Literary Salon series, held at the New York Public Library. About 80 attendees filled the seats, which was a great sign—clearly this is a subject that people across the industry are passionate about, enough to get folks to come out on a chilly Saturday afternoon.

I have to admit, I was a little nervous about the panel. The CBC Diversity Committee discussion at the American Librarian Association Midwinter conference ignited much conversation, including heated debates on online forums and calls for action. I went into the panel knowing that there were two goals in mind—one, talk about why this issue is important to me, as a reader and editor, and two, to stress the importance of keeping the conversation moving forward, rather than having it hindered by criticism.

Much to my happiness, the panel was expertly handled and deftly moderated by Betsy Bird, with insightful discussion by Zetta and Sofia.  Zetta talked about the difference between diversity and equity, in that diversity focuses on difference and equity focuses on fairness, which I appreciated. Zetta defined the word “equity” as equal representation during her presentation about achieving equity in the publishing industry. 

It was also a terrific opportunity to meet Sofia, who recently endorsed an upcoming middle grade by Diana Lopez (Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel—yeah, she loves it!). She talked about the importance of opening the minds of readers by encouraging them to read stories about experiences outside of their own and also the power of seeing their faces on book covers, noting that there were more faces of the “undead” on covers than diverse faces. She also shared an experience she had with an editor who turned down her manuscript, citing that it wasn’t “Latina enough”—the editor was Latina herself. Sofia explained how this negated her personal experience as an African American Latina. 

I found myself listening hard to what both authors had to say; I could hear their frustration with feeling marginalized, both with getting their books published and with how the market tends to treat multicultural books and stories as “niche.” Both pointed to the need have more diverse stories, covers, booksellers, and editors. I realized that in the discussions I’ve had about diversifying the publishing industry, we focus mostly on race and ethnicity, but we hardly ever talk about class and geography. 

An individual growing up in a rural, impoverished Southern town is a marginalized person, regardless of skin color. Said poor, Southern person from the country has an equally if not more difficult time getting into or even considering a career in publishing, mainly for two reasons: 1) publishing is not a lucrative profession, and 2) New York City, where most major publishing houses are, is an incredibly expensive city.

Education is another factor.
There is no “right” way to get into publishing, as you can see in our “How I Got into Publishing” series. However, there are certain underlying basics that typically exist—access to books (children’s and beyond), a strong grasp of the English language (presuming you are working for an English-language imprint/publisher), and knowledge about the industry. So first, you need to have access to books to even become passionate about them in the first place. Then you need to hone your writing, critical, and communication skills, which usually happens at some institution of higher learning, and lastly, someone’s got to tell you about what publishers do. Add this on top of being okay with starting out in one of the world’s priciest cities at a low salary, and you begin to see that it sometimes does take a perfect storm of privilege to get into publishing.

It’s a tough sell, isn’t it? Especially for those whose parents worked hard to ensure that their kids don’t have to worry about money. I’m a first generation Asian American, and my parents fell into the typical Asian tropes—be a doctor, engineer, lawyer, accountant, pharmacist, dentist, etc. My dad broke the mold by wanting me to apply to vet school! But it’s not about the money specifically; it’s a cultural viewpoint. Money means the ability to care for your family and to respect and give back to the parents who have given their lives to raise, feed, protect, and shelter you. One common custom is for the child to give his/her first paycheck to the family (which I did while working at Great Panda, thank you very much). Every Chinese friend is now a doctor or in finance, and I am an outlier, one who chose passion over paycheck.

That said, I acknowledge that I’m privileged. My parents are well off, and while I didn’t accept help from them (except graduating without debt—thanks to Dad and state school education!), I had security. And while my childhood in Alabama (which included being called a “chink” throughout middle school, being told that I’ll never find a boyfriend because I’m Chinese, and getting put in a remedial reading class due to my accent) has given me a unique experience that I hope to bring to the books that I love and acquire, having the privilege of education and security played a huge role in getting me into publishing.

So what steps can we take to address the challenges of class, geography, and education? Maybe the first baby step is to get out of New York and spread the word about what publishing is and why it is so gosh darn fun. The Committee is already actively doing school visits locally. But we've got to figure out a way to do this elsewhere.


  1. Thanks for the recap - this is an important topic, and I'm intrigued indeed that this is more easily spilling out of the individual blog posts and ruminations and into the face-to-face world - because I think the action we're all waiting for is happening now.

  2. Connie, great summary, thank you for the personal aspect, and I'm so glad the panel went well and you didn't find yourself in the hot seat. Very interesting to consider how we define equity and marginalization as well as diversity. Progress!

  3. Oh I wish I had know about this event earlier (if it was open to the public)!

    I would love to see more published multi-cultural books for kids and it'd be great if more publishers can accept these kinds of novels as "mainstream" instead of a "niche"

  4. Class is very much a complicating factor in even entertaining the idea to enter publishing, definitely. When you grow up in poverty, though, a job that has the potential to pay 30 or 40 or 50k a year is actually pretty appealing (more is even better, but even that much is more money than I could have even dreamed of as a kid). It's the difference between poor and middle class, which for me was a huge difference. Being able to afford to go to the dentist before there's a huge gaping hole in your tooth. Being able to go to the doctor whenever you needed to, to not have to make your medicine stretch. These were things I didn't actually know growing up. And the only reason I didn't go hungry on a regular basis (most of the time, at least) was because we lived on a farm and grew our own food.

    For me, even knowing that getting a job in publishing was a possibility was the missing link, and then figuring out how to make the money work was harder than I'd expected when the reality came down to it, because even though I was making more as a publishing assistant than I ever made as a helper on a dairy farm or as a dishwasher/baker in a Swedish bakery, it's still not that much to get by on in a city (even one that isn't NYC). The only way I did it was by avoiding New York for nearly 10 years of my career--and there aren't that many children's book jobs outside New York!

    I think anyone who isn't independently wealthy is going to have a struggle in publishing financially, especially at first. We definitely aren't in this job for the money (though I do like to pay my bills and am really grateful to be able to afford my own apartment nowadays...). That, I think, will always make recruiting among the poor to lower middle class a problem, even when there is great access to books and love of the English language. There are certainly easier, lower-stress ways of making a living. (And just as many high-stress, low-pay ways to do so, too. :) ) It's a huge challenge.

  5. Great story, I really admire how you want to show the diversity in class and geography. In many things diversity is only focused on race and ethnicity.