Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Industry Q&A with Robin Smith, children's book reviewer

When you were a child or young adult, what book first opened your eyes to the diversity of the world?

I think the first book I remember really opening my eyes was The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. I have no idea how well it holds up over time.

What is your favorite diverse book that you recently read?

Since I am currently serving on a committee which looks at books from all over the globe, I have many books with diverse characters from all countries. I couldn't possible pick a "favorite," but a new book I think everyone should read is I Have the Right to Be a Child which is an illustrated book about UN Convention on the rights of the child. It is stunning.

If you could participate in a story time with any children’s book author or illustrator (alive or dead) who would it be?

I would love to have met and heard John Steptoe--I would love to hear him tell and talk about Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, one of my favorite books of all time.

How do you introduce books featuring characters of color to parents and kids?

I really don't do anything different when I share books with characters of color to children, to tell you the truth.

Authenticity is, of course, key in multicultural literature, and often times reviewers tend to highlight perceived inaccuracies. How do you think this affects the publishing industry’s decision making process in including or excluding characters and books with diverse and/or multicultural themes?

I am not, in any way, knowledgeable about the winds of change in the industry, but I do know it is very, very difficult to judge something as authentic and accurate. Having just spent a weekend recently talking about just that issue in every single book we discussed with incredibly intelligent teachers and librarians, I know how tough it is to know what is or is not authentic. I know publishers want to get it right, but I imagine they struggle with the issue. I have no idea if this stops books from being published or not.

How can we reconcile the prevalence in reviews of readers wanting to like or sympathize with the protagonist and our call to write people with whom they fundamentally differ?

I have never understood the line of reasoning that says everyone wants to read (or sympathize) with characters who look like and think like themselves. I am not that sort of a reader and most of my students love to read about different people, different worlds, different times. There are not many books about middle-aged white second grade teachers that would appeal to me, for example!

I want to give an example of a book that is deeply loved by my students: Anna Hibiscus. At first, one would think my independent school students would turn their collect backs on this little girl from Africa and her enormous family. The opposite is true. They love her, love her family, love her experiences in a part of the world that they think they know a lot about. Turns out, once they meet Anna, they realize that their picture of Africa is static and uninformed. Where are the giraffes? The lions? Why is Anna's grandmother texting her? That sound you hear is a million stereotypes breaking...and a love affair with a character beginning.

I know the research on all this, but I just don't understand it. Maybe the parents buying books gravitate to covers with kids that look like their kids, but the actual readers are not nearly so inflexible, especially when librarians and teachers introduce all sorts of books to all sorts of children.

As someone who reads, loves, and often reviews children’s literature, please provide what you feel are the three most important things to keep in mind when writing a diverse character or about a different culture?
  1. Do your research.
  2. Have a lot of people, of all different social groups, read your manuscript.
  3. Research some more.

Robin Smith is a second grade teacher at The Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She also reviews for The Horn Book, Kirkus and BookPage magazines. Occasionally, she writes articles for these same publications. Robin also, with Lolly Robinson, writes the blog Calling Caldecott.


  1. "That sound you hear is a million stereotypes breaking..."

    Yeah, baby, bring on the noise.

    Robin Smith is one of my FAVORITE book people in the world, and I'm so glad to see her here.

  2. Great interview. I also read and loved Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters. Such a wonderful book.

  3. I LOVE those Anna Hibiscus books. I wish everyone would read them and try to recommend them as often as possible in my library.