Friday, August 10, 2012


Earlier this week, NPR released the results of its survey of its listeners favorite young adult novels. Like Shaker Laurie (teacher in Minneapolis), I was struck by how White the list is... As she pointed out, there are only two books by authors who are not White. Those two are House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.

Do the responses to the survey and the list NPR created based on the responses and their judgements on what qualified for the list reflect the Whiteness of the listeners and of the NPR staff, too?

I think so.

NPR has a lot of work to do with regard to diversity. Given that NPR recently received a 1.5 million dollar grant to work on diversity, let's hope that we'd see a difference list from a more informed NPR.

If their coverage becomes more inclusive, maybe more people of color will tune in. And when NPR administers another survey, the results would be different.

And if they hire a more diverse staff, maybe that staff would notice how White the list is, and develop a story ABOUT that whiteness. Such a story would inform listeners of the outstanding literature being written by writers of color.

That "P" in NPR has got to stop standing in for "White" because the public in the US isn't predominantly White.


croys said...

Some observations:
1) Have you met Neal Shusterman? Add him to your list.
2) These books were nominated by readers not compiled by NPR. They culled the list to one we could vote on that included many non-whites. Readers didn't choose them. There are only four on the list I have not read and while I might put some others on, they are probably still white authors.
3) Rather than look at who wrote it, good writing is good writing, look at how things are treated. I can't stand the Twilight series and how the Native Americans are handled but many love it.
4) These are reader favorites. They don't claim to be quality though many on here are. Reader's Choice Awards are always tricky because so many good books are left behind since readers haven't read them.

Jeff Gottesfeld said...

Well put, Debbie. Not only that, but maybe writers who are not of color can and will do more writing with heroes and heroines who are not white.

Debbie Reese said...

A lengthy response from a librarian, sent to me as an email (I'm putting it in italics to distinguish it from my own words):


Does EVERYTHING in America have to be turned into a race issue?
I can say with total honesty I could care less what color an author is. If I like their book, I like their book and there is no racial issue associated with it.
For 50 years I have been made to feel guilty because I am 'white', and that is just as wrong as discrimination against minorities.

I stock my libraries with all the best books I can find, regardless of the author's race. I try to appeal to a variety of taste and interests and really try to bring in lots of reads by minority authors. Ninety percent of the students here are from a minority group. Records show they predominantly prefer books by authors who happen to be 'white'. This is not a bias, it is a fact. They don't care what color the author is either. They are just looking for good books to read.
At this time in history, most of the better reads in American in are written by people who happen to be 'white'.

I am sure your intent was probably good, but all you have done is make me want to take all those books off the shelves written by minority authors - that the kids don't read -and throw them in the trash. We 'white' people have had enough of this crap shoved down our throats ..... every time we turn around.

Shame on you. Just let people enjoy reading what they want to read!

Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for calling attention to the implications of the NPR list. I've followed reactions to the list somewhat on the YALSA list serve and can't help but begin to wonder why it has obtained so much attention. As 'croys' mentioned, the books were nominated by and voted upon by listeners. I think that the list serves as a reminder to people of color that we are players in the game, we have to step up! As I mentioned in one of my own posts, we have to step up and nominate books by authors of color whenever the chance presents itself. If the books we want aren't in our libraries, we have to request them. We cannot expect that white people will know or understand the importance of representing all people in book selections.

Being made aware is not the same as being made to feel guilty, partilulary when we don't control anyone's emotions.

Unfortunately, most things in America are about race. I say unfornately, but that isn't necessarilty bad. Taking the time to view issues from the perspective of someone from another culture to celebrate aspects of life we would normally ignore is what happens when we accept the diversity around us. Racism, omiting works by people of color, that's wrong. Whenever books by people of color are omitted from libraries, bookstores or even from being published in the first place, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. That may make some people uncomfortable but I applaud people such as yourself who fight the fight on the regular. When you speak up, I know you don't do it for your own self interest but rather to honor past and present generations.

Congratulations on your recent award!

Anonymous said...

Actually... your final sentence is statistically incorrect. America is 78% caucasian by the most recent census. America is predominantly white. Now, if POC literature could get even close to 22% of publishing done in this country in order to more accurately reflect the current ratios, I would see it as a great improvement to what is currently done.

Thaddeus said...

I'd like to echo thanks for bringing attention to the list. It's been interesting seeing the development of the list in general, and it's disappointing to see how it turns out for many reasons. (Even if, for some strange reason, we wanted a list of "best books about white people," the list is very skewed to recent paranormal/dystopian/romance.)

It is critical to point out problems such as this one because it points out who is winning in the world of YA literature. We may claim that, since this list is generated by user choice, people simply prefer books by authors who happen to be white. But what does that tell us?

It tells us that stories by/about white people are the ones that get celebrated in our culture. They are the ones that are seen as valuable; they are the ones that people tell each other about. Indeed, I've heard multiple people of color describe the difficulty they've had in getting their books published--publishers say that books that honestly portray the experiences of people of color "don't sell." Clearly, this list shows that this may be a sad fact.

As a white person, I don't feel guilty about that. I feel angry about it. It is not fair that stories about people who look like me are the only ones that count. There is not a single book on this list that features an Black protagonist. Nor is there an Asian American protagonist.

That fact bears repeating: There is not a single book on that list that features a Black or Asian American protagonist.

If the "Best-Ever Teen Novels" do not portray the experiences of roughly 20% of the American population, we are doing a severe disservice. Race matters in this nation, more than most of us are willing to admit. The makeup of this list only reminds me of how deep the problem runs.

Caveats: As croys mentions, Neal Shusterman is a person of color, although his books do not specifically tackle issues faced by protagonists of color. Also, NPR listeners are 87% white, which probably also has a skewing factor on polls. Regardless, this list is a sad show of the pervasiveness of whiteness in a "postracial" American culture.

Debra said...

Where is Walter Dean Myers?

Sharon Flake?

Jacqueline Woodson?


Teaspoon said...

I'm embarrassed to share a profession with the librarian quoted in the third comment. My MLIS program consciously included discussion in many classes on the importance of seeking out different perspectives and representations, both to serve diverse populations and to provide opportunities for people to learn about cultures and experiences different from their own.

That 'readers just prefer books by white authors' is being used as a defense of this list is a more resounding condemnation of such a collection development philosophy than I can make. If a librarian isn't making an active effort to find and promote interesting books by authors of color, the library's patrons are unlikely to get much chance to find out whether they like them! And the operative word there is "active," not "effort," since a wide variety of resources exist to meet that exact need.

Shame on you, unnamed librarian. Really.

JB said...

NPR simply reported the fact that we're no more diverse than in 1965. Theirs is not the blame.

I believe the biggest problem with achiving greater diversity is that most efforts are a one-way street. They want white people to be more diverse, but don't expect other ethnicities to be more diverse. Campbele is basically correct. Everything is about race --- generally speaking. It's nothing personal, but most people want to associate with people like themselves. Catholics like to associate with Catholics. Democrats with Democrats. African Americans with African Americans, and so on. This is how the average person behaves.

I applaud NPR's efforts to extend their influence to a more diverse audience and meet more diverse needs. But falsely reporting the votes of their listeners doesn't achieve those goals. Quite the opposite. The moment we insist they skew reality for the sake of any political or social desire we create a terrifying precedent. When do the lies stop? History has long since proved that Affirmative Action did more harm than good. Increased diversity should be a consequence of education and civility. It should not echo the iron boots of propaganda.

The truth is, a "best ever" list is never more than a popularity contest. Since such contests are won by accruing 51% of the vote --- and 78% of the vote (at worst!) is white, and just like everybody else, white people tend to hang around with people like themselves, and non-white people almost never write books intended for the Caucasian audience --- then it shouldn't have surprised anyone that 100% of the list reflected a Caucasian world view. I find it amazing that 62% of the nation should be expected to write books to meet the desires of the other 38%, but it's apparently unreasonable to ask the 38% to write books deemed enjoyable by the 62%. They would have made it onto the list.... According to the statistics, a single book written by a Native Indian would have appeared on the list had it been popular with at least 51% of the respondants. Are we sure NPR is to blame?

Blaming NPR for presenting a list short on diversity is worse than shooting the messenger. It's expecting the messanger to lie to save his life. Complaining that NPR's list doesn't reflect enough diversity is no different than complaining that Spanish-speaking radio doesn't play Lawrence Welk music or complaining that 78% of the actors on BET television aren't white. Our nation is made up of people who simply like to be with people much like themselves. My problem with most diversity efforts is that they tend to be more about repatriation than enlightenment. So many of we white people react the way we do because we see everything from children's books to news programs that reflect diversity many times higher than actually exists. And when we agree that it's a good thing and we're all better for it, we're told it's not enough. Sadly, books and programs found within the other cultures rarely include white people. Diversity should not be a one-way street. Respect should be mutual.

Frankly, I'm no more happy with using propaganda to engineer a society where everyone feels equally comfortable with one another (resistance is futile!) than I am with intolerance that leads to contempt and violence. The issue of diversity will be resolved with respect, equality, and education --- not with propoganda --- and expecting NPR to change its list to be more diverse than our nation really is, is using propaganda.

When the issue of diversity is no longer approached as a one-way street, we may finally achieve it.