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:
“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.