07-21-18 Patricia Sargeant

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

#weneeddiversebooks because something is missing

Hi everyone!
I am YA author B. A. Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for teens. My tagline says it all - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them. 

A little history:

More years ago than I want to admit, I was a junior computer programmer working in COBOL on IBM mainframes. This was in the days when the letters P and C never went together (the idea of political correctness had not been invented and computers were anything but personal) and the word tablet made people think of Moses. Clients came to tell programmers what they wanted from the computer and we gave them exactly what they said, no more and no less. They were never really satisfied by what they received and we made jokes about users never knowing what they wanted.

So there I was with a group of users who wanted me to change the way a report was laid out on the paper. It was actually a pretty complicated piece of formatting for, as far as I could tell, not even an esthetic benefit. So I did the unthinkable. I asked why. They explained that the new format would make it easier for them to manually use the numbers to create their own reports. Why not just let the computer do those computations, I asked.


Then someone said, "I didn't know the machines could do that."

They had asked for less than they wanted because it didn't occur to them they could have the real thing. Seriously, they praised me for months afterwards because a half-hours work on my part saved them countless hours of drudgery every month. I got a nice raise out of asking the right question.

Now, in the immortal words of Bill Cosby, I told you that story so I could tell you this one.

Jump to the present

The #weneeddiversebooks campaign should never have taken the publishing world by surprise.
   Their claim - young readers never asked for diversity. They don't buy books with protagonists of color or featuring ethnic differences, or set in different locales. My claim - they looked at what some readers selected from an increasingly limited supply and used that to prove a point. A hundred dystopian books are written and one takes off to bestseller heights so hundreds more just like that one are published.  Out of dozens of vampire books, one becomes a mega-hit and  dozens more are rushed into print. A book featuring multi-cultural characters is published in the middle of that all-white landslide and it has difficulty getting noticed and doesn't hit the stellar heights. The sad fact is that only about 8% of children's and YA books feature characters of color, they are the needle in the haystack and frequently don't sell because reviewers overlook them and readers who want them can't find them. The industry sees the low sales numbers as justification that THE MARKET doesn't want those books. 

The truth is, In one way or another users (aka readers) have been saying the want diversity for years. But the industry hasn't known how to ask the right questions or do anything except crunch numbers. And readers, especially adolescent and teen readers, have difficulty asking for something they don't see and subconsciously don't think possible.  The publishing industry is like the computer programming industry in the old days before we realized users don't always know how to articulate their wishes.  But they know what they want when they see it.  In it's absence they feel, the kids know something is missing, but don't know what or how to explain.

Ask the next question

I and several other YA authors met with a group of teens last month and asked them if there was something more they wanted to see in books.  After much thinking, and a little encouragement, they came up with three things.
  • Books that show what life was really like in high school
  • Stories set in more places than just the US, because they know the world is bigger
  • People like themselves and their friends
And when presented with books that did just that they scrambled to grab them.  Kids are not colorblind.  Instead of pretending that things are fine, they are beginning to see what they don't see, that the multi-colored world they live is not in the books they find on the bookshelves.  They have learned to open their mouths and ask for more, to make the unseen visible. 

Is there something you would like to see in books that you haven't found?  Don't be shy, if there is anything you wish to see, share it.  Who knows, maybe someone can connect you to a book that meets that wish.


Judith Ashley said...

With the changing demographics and the reality that many teens today do see the world Very Different from the days of yore (or in other words, "my time"), I so glad you and other YA authors are speaking up on behalf of young readers.

My granddaughter just graduated from high school, a member of the most diverse class in the school's history, one of the minority - she's Northern European white.

The world isn't just changing, it has changed for her generation.

C. Morgan Kennedy said...

Thank you B.A. Binns for this great post! I just finished the first manuscript in a YA Steampunk series that features and African-American heroine. I planned this series because the story is definitely a book I wished I had when I was younger. I'll be honest and say that I was completely floored by the level of interest this manuscript has generated! I am so excited to see how this movement affects the publishing industry. - Morgan

B. A. Binns said...

Congrats C. Morgan. You've got interest, that's wonderful. Unfortunately for me, I still can't find publishers interested in my contemporary YA. But I'm glad to hear success if happening for others.

Sarah Raplee said...

What great post! Your analysis of attitudes in the publishing industry is spot-on!

I pray that we are on the verge of a sea change led by indie authors.