The All-White World of Children’s Publishing

I just read a great paper by Laura Atkins (Roehampton University, London) titled “What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publication of Children’s Books” that she gave at the IRSCL congress in Frankfurt. This topic has been on my mind a lot lately since I study Asian American children’s literature and, although a bit dated, the CCBC reports that the ratio of insider authors of Asian/Asian American stories is higher than that of the Native American, Latino and Black stories (2002). I hypothesize that it is because Asian Americans are perceived to be better educated and able to represent themselves than Native Americans, Latinos and Blacks, which is an unfair stereotype thanks to the Model Minority Myth (shall we call this our “yellow privilege”?)

Also, I’ve been thinking of white privilege in publishing because of my research regarding transracial adoption in American children’s literature. The majority of Asian children adopted into the US have been adopted by white couples of relative economic stability – the “white middle class” Laura speaks of. Of the 51 children’s and young adult books I examined in my dissertation, almost all were written by white Americans, and about half were written by white adoptive mothers. Few were written by Korean Americans, and a whopping one was written by an adopted Korean, who was about nine years old at the time of writing, and whose text was thus heavily edited by her therapist and adoptive parents – all white, I presume. I also presume that the majority of editors and publishers whose hands accepted these texts were white Americans. Thus, while the topics of these stories were the experiences of transracially adopted Koreans, the creators and “gatekeepers” who let them into the American publishing world were – and are – white Americans.

So, since I tend to look at most issues through the lens of transracial adoption, I read Laura’s article with TRA at the front of my mind. Some thoughts:

Laura writes,

“I would argue that most children’s publishing houses currently exist in order to serve the interests and needs of the white majority culture.”

Publishing is undeniably an industry. Adoption, on the other hard, is also an industry, but many would deny it. Korean adoptee and adoption activist Jane Jeong Trenka writes about “transnational adoption and the ‘financialization of everything’” in her eloquent Conducive article, and Korean adoptee and adoption scholar Tobias Hübinette writes of how adoption agencies are “profit-making,” how changes in the Korean economy ebbed and flowed the tide of adoption, and how transnational adoption can be likened to slavery because “both practices are driven by insatiable consumer demand, private market interests and cynical profit making, and utilise (sic) a highly differentiated system of pricing, where the young and the healthy are the most valued… both groups are brought over only to please and satisfy the needs, demands and desires of their well-to-do buyers and owners,” with both practices “justified and legitimised (sic) by the same shallow argument that when moved to their new homes, the actual material solution of the slaves and the adoptees is unquestionably greatly improved” (Hübinette, Comforting an Orphaned Nation, 2006). I’m sure this comparison makes many uncomfortable, but there it is: they “exist in order to serve the interests and needs of the white majority culture.”

Okay, back to white privilege in children’s literature publishing. Laura continues:

“this in many ways goes beyond color – it is the problem of a deeply engrained culture of publishing, of distribution networks, of the perceived market… The children’s publishing industry is blind, insular, and self-enclosed in too many ways. Yes, many good and well-intentioned people work in the industry, and most desire to make things better, to provide all children with wonderful books to read. But this is such a fundamental problem based on who primarily works in the industry, and even more so who holds the positions of power and dictates marketing and publication decisions.”

“Perhaps self-publishing will be the way forward, the internet, the ability of people to bypass an archaic publishing industry that seems slow to respond to change. Though currently, self-published books lack the legitimacy that most children’s book buyers perceive from books that come out of publishing houses.”

No doubt TRA stories are written by “good and well-intentioned people” who want to “provide all children with wonderful books to read.” But are good intentions enough? One of the stories I examined mislabeled Korea’s location on a map and another displayed the Korean flag with the black bars slanted in the wrong direction. If a Korean American editor had been checking the story, surely those mistakes would not have gone unnoticed.

Laura mentions Lee & Low and Children’s Book Press, two publishers that publish specifically multicultural children’s books. There does exist an adoption publisher that publishes specifically adoption related texts: Yeong & Yeong (publisher of the well-known When You Were Born in Korea and When You Were Born in China books). Still, I would say the majority of adoptees who try to go more mainstream have difficulty finding a home for their stories. Some adoptee friends of mine who have successfully published for the adult market have been unable to publish their books for children or young adults because they are deemed “too edgy.” Apparently, it’s okay to have young adult novels about drug abuse (Go Ask Alice), physical abuse (Dreamland), eating disorders (Wintergirls) or urban violence (Autobiography of My Dead Brother), but God forbid we have an “edgy” adoption story that may or may not paint adoption as less than ideal. Rather, since adoptees are having difficult getting their stories in print, it appears that many are now using the Internet as their outlet to share their thoughts and stories. See my friend JaeRan Kim’s site: Harlow Monkey.  She hasn’t necessarily tried writing for young people, but her blog is an excellent example of unregulated, uncensored self-publishing that allows her to speak her mind. And you know what? (White) adoptive parents and other (white) people interested in adoption respect her honest, thoughtful and well-researched thoughts.

Anyway, read the rest of Laura’s insightful paper here.

17 thoughts on “The All-White World of Children’s Publishing

  1. Sarah, what a fascinating bog entry, and going in a totally different direction. I hadn’t thought about the adoption situation in this way, and I can see how it would make people uncomfortable. But it’s so important for people to speak freely, to talk about these dynamics and their impact. I think you are right, there are some topics that make publishers more uncomfortable than others, and I think angry texts that question that status quo are top of the list.

    That said, Roni Natov spoke at the IRSCL conference about two books AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. And something I realized about both is that they are angry and could make readers uncomfortable – which is great and important. I’m going to point people back to your article from mine, as I love how it extends this topic and conversation.

  2. Jr

    Great post!! The connections you have made (and Laura’s piece too) need to be talked about more!! And I still think about the Nodelman article about children’s literature and colonialism all the time.

  3. More non-white publishers of children stories is needed, period. Being a child does not exempt one from being a victim of racism, this needs to attempt to be compensated for. The result is deep self hatred – I have worked with non-white/black children before. The self-hatred I observed in black children is devastating.

    Replace white supremacy with a system of justice where no person is mistreated.

    1. Agreed. Thanks for stopping by and for your support. We sorely need more non-white publishers, editors, authors and illustrators, because the children reading books aren’t all non-white, and having mostly white books is just as damaging to white children.

  4. Laura, thanks for linking back to me!

    JR, yep, Nodelman’s article is an absolute must-read for anyone studying or working with children’s literature.

    NWA, we definitely need more non-white publishers, and for the majority-white publishers to be more cognizant and careful. This is our collective mission! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  5. Thank you for an excellent article on an often ignored topic. I have experienced what you describe, that it is difficult convincing traditional publishers to accept a story that deals realistically with adoption without having it toned down. What do you think we as writers and adult adoptees can do to speak to young adoptees in more honest terms? Is it possible to convince traditional publishers to tackle this topic, or is self-publishing the more viable solution for getting stories out there that change people’s minds? I’m thinking it might be a mix of both, but I’m not sure how to crack the adoptee stereotype. Too many writers I know started off with a great idea that was considered by a traditional publisher only to have the negative adoption aspects watered down or even eliminated at a later stage (usually because someone higher up wasn’t comfortable with it). Is that inevitable at this point? Do we need to prime the pump on our own before traditional publishers will consider broaching the less-than-savory aspects of adoption?

    Thanks also for your lists of books about adoption for children and teens. I have had a hard time finding any and found your information valuable.

    1. Triona, I’ve heard many tales of stories that got watered-down by editors too, and it’s sad. Oftentimes the expertise of a subject lies with the author, so sometimes I feel like editors might be overstepping when they change things too much so that a story is more palatable to a larger audience. I understand there’s a bottom line, but it’s sort of like the chicken and the egg: if we don’t provide stories with more oomph, how do we know that there isn’t a market for them?

      For now, all I can say is keep writing, keep trying, don’t compromise, be true to yourself. Someday it’ll happen.

      You’re welcome for the list of books. Please keep in mind they’re not necessarily all “recommended.” Some are quite controversial!

      1. Do you think that authors can educate editors on why such stories shouldn’t be watered down? Or are we doomed in an eternity of happy-happy adoption books? That doesn’t seem fair to young adoptees who are struggling and not finding resonance in literature.

        As for controversial, that can be good sometimes! Thanks again.

      2. Triona, I believe anything is possible, but changes such as we wish for will take time. As well, as Laura Atkins has pointed out, as long as the people working in publishing remain homogeneous (white, middle class, etc), change will come even more slowly. So it’s important that we continue to speak up, make our voices heard in forums such as this and other spaces, and encourage and nurture the writers we know who are talented, whose stories we want to hear, whose stories might contribute something new instead of adding to the same rhetoric of “colorblind love” “adoption is for always,” etc. As well, we need to be more vocal about the shortcomings of the stories that DO exist and circulate – it appears to me that we often rely on how adoptive parents respond to those books (they’re the ones purchasing them, after all), but what about the children themselves, or the adoptees who are now adults and read those books?

  6. Sheila Welch

    Interesting discussion. I’m guilty of being one of those adoptive parents who’s written books about adoption. In all my writing, I try to get inside my characters, but, obviously, I have not lived their (fictional) lives. One of my novels, DON’T CALL ME MARDA, was published by a small pess whose focus is adoption and related issues. Does it discuss the “less-than-savory aspects of adoption?” I guess not. It’s told from the point of view of a non-adopted sibling, so it reflects her feelings and experiences with a new sister who is retarded. It has an upbeat ending (I didn’t send the child back into the foster care system), but I didn’t make it seem there would be a happy-ever-after life for the family.

    I do think I touched on some of the edgy emotions that surface with foster care in my short story, “Tidying Up” that was published by Cicada magazine (Jan./Feb. 2001) I’ve noticed how people assume that we adoptive or foster care parents are somehow being nobel and “saving” the children when that’s often not the case. Adoptive parents — even ones who parent kids with special needs — are human and make all sorts of mistakes. In “Tidying Up,” a foster child is sent back because the parents’ biological daughter lies about what the boy did.

    I’m currently working on a novel about two siblings (ages 12 and 8) who are adopted by a childess couple. It’s told in third person but from the twelve-year-old boy’s point of view. I’m hoping to find a traditional publisher for it. I am sending the manuscript to two of my trans-racially adopted adult sons to see what they think of it. They joined our family when they were nine and seven. We have a total of seven children, six adopted. Four of the six were of school age when we met. As one of our kids said, “A new family is like a whole new deck of cards.”

    Sheila
    Author/Illustrator

    1. Hi Sheila, thanks for identifying yourself and sharing your background and publications on my blog. I don’t deny that authors who write these stories do so with the best intentions, but at the end of the day I feel like the number of adoptive parent and non-adoptee authors continues to grow, while the number of adoptee-authored publications remains stagnant. There are many beautiful writers whose stories are in the adult market, but have not yet broken through in children’s publishing. How can we work together to make space for adoptee voices? How can we support them in breaking into this market?

  7. halforphan56

    Hi!

    A good place to try is Trafford Publishings at:
    http://www.trafford.com/

    Yes, it is a pay-your-own package and pay for extras, but he advantage is that this publisher is willing to publish well-written controversy. They won’t publish the usual problem-causers such aas porn or hate books, but they are interested in a book that can hold an audiance.

    They are working with me as I complete the final stages of my book’s 3rd proof. This has been a very exciting 5 years! I contacted song publishers and purchased copyrights, and for each problem area I brought to Trafford’s attention, they were accepting. Controversy, no problem! Memoir, expose, history, aslong as you are truthful and aren’t out to hurt anyone, Trafford willmore than likely accept your contract. Yes, you have to pay for the publsihing contract and it is expensive, but mainstream publishers are not as willing to publish activist material.

    If you do write to Trafford, please tell them that I sent you over! My name is Joan M Wheeler, author of : Forbidden Family: A Half-Orphan’s Account of Her Adoption, Reunion and Social Activism, due to be published in the next two months!

    Good Luck! Let’s get out there and send them some decent manuscripts that tell adoption stories as you would like our stories to be told!

    Peace,

    Joan Wheeler

    1. Hi Joan, thanks for pointing out an alternate publishing opportunity. While it is true that authors depicting controversial topics might have an easier time publishing through an alternative press such as Trafford, what really needs to happen is that mainstream presses acknowledge, validate, and publish these stories, instead of publishing stories mostly from the adoptive parents’ perspectives.

      Looking forward to seeing your book when it comes out!

  8. Gert McQueen

    regarding Joan Wheeler, and her screen names of halforphan56 and 1adoptee and the book Forbidden Family:

    It needs to be pointed out that the book Forbidden Family, written by Joan Wheeler, published by Trafford Publications has been pulled from their selling markets. The book is unavailable and no further copies of it in it’s present form will be printed. The book was pulled by the publisher after several months of investigating the documented proof sent to them by the birth family.
    The pulling of the book proves that what the birth sisters have been saying, that the book is full of lies and hate, is correct. For further details see: ruthsippelpace.wordpress.com/

  9. gert mcqueen

    It needs to be pointed out that the book Forbidden Family, written by Joan Wheeler, published by Trafford Publications has been pulled from their selling markets. The book is unavailable and no further copies of it in it’s present form will be printed. The book was pulled by the publisher after several months of investigating the documented proof sent to them by the birth family.

  10. Pingback: Why is Joan Wheeler’s book Forbidden Family dead? Because she killed it herself! « Refuting a Book of Lies: Forbidden Family –

  11. gert mcqueen

    I am a birth mother, a foster mother and an adoptive mother!

    I signed 3 documents, one to relinquish my birth child, one to became foster mother and one to become the adoptive mother. He was 16 and never left my presence, gave his own permission to be adopted, which in NYS anyone over 14 must give own permission. My daughter, 15, chose no adoption, she wanted to keep her own name.

    My family had interference in this process by a meddling ‘angry militant adoptee’ (her own description of herself) who happened to be my reunioned adopted birth sister. When told to butt out of our business she placed a child abuse report against me because we were causing harm to my son by taking away his original birth certificate, he was too old for adoption and other things she didn’t like about my parental activities. This report was dismissed, by authorities, but she didn’t stop.

    She poisoned my daughter against me and when I moved my family out of Buffalo for economic and quality of life improvements, my daughter ran away. Her issues were my business no one else’s but this reunited adopted sister determine that now my daughter was a victim of sexual abuse! What ended up being a 2 years ordeal, with me placing my child in a PINS in a foster home for her safety and to keep her away from the meddling adoptee and a court hearing wherein we were proven fit parents, the charges were false and the record was expunged. But the damage was done to my family, this happened in 1980/83.

    In 2009 she rewrote history and facts, about my life, the family I was born into and the family that I gave birth to, exploiting us all into what she ‘views’ us to be. So tell me again.. that I don’t know Joan Wheeler’s character or about adoption!

    To see full story to which I posted the above go to:
    http://www.buffalonews.com/editorial-page/from-our-readers/my-view/article450236.ece

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