Varian Johnson: Where Are All the Black Boys?

My friend the fabulous writer Varian Johnson posted this thoughtful essay on his blog and gave me permission to re-post it here.

Where are all the black boys?

Last week, author and librarian Betsy Bird posted this on Twitter: “At the risk of sounding desperate, can anyone name me just ONE middle grade novel published in 2013 starring an African-American boy?”

She later followed up with a post listing all the books published in 2013 featuring African-American boys as main characters. If I’m counting correctly, the number is somewhere around eight. Maybe ten, when you count some of the small publishers.

You have no idea how depressed this makes me feel.

There are a lot of theories why these books aren’t being published. Maybe authors aren’t writing them. Maybe editors and agents aren’t acquiring them. Maybe readers don’t want them.

While this makes me worry about the state of the industry, I find myself first worrying about my daughter. My nieces. And especially my nephew.

I grew up in a time when there were very few books for young people featuring people of color. There’s no way to describe how it feels NOT to see yourself in books. There’s no way to describe how it feels NOT to see other authors that look like you writing books. As someone that had wanted to be an author since I was in second grade, it was…crushing.

Hell, it’s still crushing. Have you ever scanned the shelves at your local bookstore? If the real world were like the YA section, I wouldn’t exist.

Knocking on wood—I have a new book coming out next year. It’s my first middle grade, and while it features an ensemble cast, the main character is a thirteen-year-old African-American boy. As of today, it’s titled THE GREAT GREENE HEIST (published by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, edited by Executive Editor Cheryl Klein). It’s about…well, a heist.

(Sorry, but I don’t do well with describing my own books. And while I’m at it, sorry for all the disclaimers, but in publishing, nothing is ever set in stone until the book’s on the shelves.)

Selfishly, I worry that no one will buy the book. Either people will think it’s not relevant to them because it features a black boy. Or they won’t buy it because they’ll think it’s about slavery or racism. Or people won’t buy it because it’s NOT true Black History Month material. (Or it could just suck, but that’s a worry shared by the majority of authors.)

I try not to obsess about things like this, but given the industry’s track record, can you blame me?

I also worry that with such a small sampling of books that feature African-American boys, my book will have to do double or triple or quadruple duty. Being a fun caper novel won’t be enough. It’ll have to be more. More literary. More commercial. More accessible. More poignant.

I know this is crazy talk. This is the type of talk that puts authors in a forever do-loop with a manuscript. I know this—but still, I worry.

I feel fortunate that this book is being published by Cheryl and the folks at AAL /Scholastic. I trust that they’ll make the right decisions about the cover—whether it features a brown face or not. I trust that they’ll do what is best to get the book in the hands of all readers, not just ones with brown faces. (And please, please read this blog post about judging covers by Andrea Davis Pinkney, vice president and editor at large of Scholastic’s Trade Books. Even as an author of color, I struggle with this issue.)

I’m working on a new project now, and it’s tough going. But in a day or so, I’ll try to forget about publishing statistics and book covers and authorial responsibility and all the other crap that can weight an author down. And then I’ll get back to work. 

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
This entry was posted in Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Varian Johnson: Where Are All the Black Boys?

  1. L. Marie says:

    The lack of books with African American boys makes me sad. Your book sounds awesome. I’ll be looking forward to reading it.

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