Comment: The shelves have gaps

Nahtyka Jolly explains how striving for more diversity within the publishing industry can have a positive impact on children's lives and education.

Nahtyka Jolly is the managing editor at Young Authors Publishing, a children's and young adult book publisher that helps bring to life the stories of children from under-represented communities.

We need to get serious about children's books. 

It's no secret that there's been a historic lack of diversity in the book publishing industry. From company executive boards to book characters and storylines, few books have centered under-represented voices in an empowering, positive, trauma-free light. But, before we can talk about the lack of books, we first need to talk about the lack of access to resources. 

Publishing houses act as cultural gatekeepers, determining which stories are worthy of hitting the shelves and how often. Many mainstream publishers lack workforce inclusivity – a survey by Publishers Weekly found that, in 2018, 84% of employees in publishing identified as white. Less than 20% of employees were from historically silenced communities, including black, Hispanic and Asian communities. 

The Cooperative Children's Book Center has tracked diversity reads since the eighties, and the data consistently shows that the number of diverse children's books published each year is disproportionately lower than the total number of titles produced by white authors. Who gets to decide which diverse books are published? The gatekeeping publishing houses. And who sits on the boards of these publishing houses? White, middle-class and, more often than not, male executives. What does this say about the value of diverse voices in high publishing spaces? It says that the shelves have gaps. 

Even if a young writer decides to self-publish, there are few mentorship opportunities available at larger publishing houses to aid aspiring writers through the publishing process. Publishing is frequently left out of conversations about viable career options in minority communities, as there are few examples of black or brown people in high-paying decision-making positions at these companies. This has created mistrust in marginalized communities, deterring many from exploring publishing as a career choice. 

At Young Authors Publishing, we publish diverse stories written by diverse authors. It's a mantra I've shared multiple times with multiple people when explaining the intentionality behind our work. We exist to share diverse stories written by diverse authors and to provide our young authors with a self-sufficient financial pathway through book publishing. We understand the need to see ourselves in the stories we read as children, and we know firsthand what it feels like to be left out of the conversations and spaces that matter. We've published more than 30 children's books, and our stories celebrate the uniqueness of the authors and communities that we support. By sharing diverse stories, we're transforming how young readers see themselves depicted in mainstream media. 

When I started working with Young Authors Publishing and became fully engrained in the inner workings of the publishing industry, I started seeing firsthand the lack of black and brown people on children's book covers. Cats and dogs? Countless titles. But marginalized voices? I'd be lucky if I saw three in the same row. I remember attending a publishing conference where we discussed ways to introduce BIPOC college students to the industry. Out of more than 30 executives and decision-makers sitting in the room, not one mentioned reaching into these communities to share upcoming opportunities with the students they were supposedly targeting. It was disheartening to witness so many growth opportunities yet hear the gaps in the conversation. I was sitting in one meeting experiencing the discussions, but there've been decades of other talks where my opinion, and those of others who look like me, weren't included. The future of publishing deserves more than what's currently being offered. Young readers deserve more. 

Children need to see themselves and their communities reflected in the books they read. They're more likely to stay engaged in classroom activities when they see themselves in their work and discussions. Plus, when children of any background are exposed to diverse stories at a young age, they can build empathy for other cultures, find the beauty in their own neighborhoods and develop well-rounded perspectives on the world. 

We need more diverse stories and more diverse authors writing the stories. Young writers have unique perspectives and experiences that other young people can find inspiring and helpful when experiencing similar situations at similar ages. Amplifying the voices of young authors is critical in shaping the next generation of leaders. 

Next year, Young Authors Publishing is launching a new imprint for older audiences, allowing us the opportunity to share narratives through a broader cultural lens and varying book formats. While one publisher can't change the entire industry, we're doing our part to ensure diverse voices are propelled through every door we walk through. It's our priority to close the gaps on the shelves and we're challenging others to do the same.

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