Before 2020, the children’s book industry wasn’t something that most people could care less about. Sure, there were handfuls of teachers, librarians, niche collectors and people actually in the business of making kids’ books, but the general adult population at large wasn’t overly concerned with it.
2020 changed that, well, it changed a lot of things. It shone a burning spotlight on a number of issues and KidLit was one of them, people got fired up. The Black Lives Matter uprisings in June had people looking for ways to be anti-racist, to change the world, to take part, and it was decided a great place to start was with children’s books. The cynical part in me wonders if that’s because purchasing kid’s books, and putting them on a display shelf, is only two clicks up from the most basic form of armchair activism. Whether or not people were actually reading them and discussing them with kids is to be determined.
During the June uprisings, the status quo of children’s literature was found to be woefully inadequate, lacking in representation of BIPOC characters (Black Indigenous People of Colour), lacking in #ownvoices of Black authors and illustrators, lacking in stories that represented BIPOC characters in a range of types of stories. People who had probably never thought twice about what sort of books they were buying their kid at the grocery store, suddenly were up in arms demanding immediate change from an industry so slow that you’ve got to wonder if they’ve only got one poor fellow binding every book by hand. Of course, all of these problems I’ve mentioned were no secret; studies, surveys, statistics, have all existed and been done for years showing that this is a huge issue. It’s just in the heat of June, and the fire of the protest, people suddenly cared a lot.
Books like “A is for Activist” by Innosanto Nagara, were cleaned out of every online store for months. Social Media Accounts focused on Diversity and Black representation in kids’ books were flooded with new followers, some accounts growing by fifty thousand followers or more practically overnight. An entire generation of new Bookstagram accounts emerged.
With people clamouring to buy more books that just didn’t exist, the publishers have been left scrambling. They couldn’t do much that would have any immediate effect aside from reallocating marketing budgets to favour the books they did have featuring BIPOC characters. Suddenly popping out new books wasn’t an option. Especially given the constraints of being in the middle of a pandemic. Even under normal circumstances it takes about two years for the average book to be produced,
Publishers have gotten to work as fast as they can, finding BIPOC authors and illustrators, and getting to work on publishing socially conscious books, but it will still be approximately a year and a half before most of the books will come to fruition.
The big question is, how will these books be received, and how will that reception impact the course of Kidlit into the foreseeable future?
Will these books be rushed? Will they be of questionable quality because of that rush? Will the books all focus on delivering incredibly serious messages of social activism instead of providing picture books by and about BIPOC people that are meant for children to enjoy again and again? Because if the answer to any of those questions is yes, then there’s going to be a problem.
Secondly, by the time these books are released how many people will still be interested? The fervour of the uninvested has cooled considerably in the last few months. That paired with having had to endure the absolutely revolting deluge of self published Amazon books about Racism slapped together in an attempt to Capitalize on the BLM movement has me wondering, will people be tired of it?
The fact remains that lack of representation in kidlit, is an issue that needs to be addressed. If this massive wave of #ownvoices books by Black Creators about BIPOC characters does not fulfill the industry’s expectation, then what will happen? What will their conclusion be? What happens if they do not sell?
If things don’t work out my concern will be that the industry executives will conclude that they were correct all along in not investing in BIPOC creators and BIPOC stories. Capitalism may dictate it would be best to just quietly close the lid on all of this, and let it collect dust with every other trend from 2020.
Or maybe, maybe I’m just jaded, and it’ll be fantastic, and people will turn up in droves to buy them. Maybe the demand for change brought out in 2020, is just what we needed to launch a new era in children’s books, a more inclusive one.