We Need Diverse Collectables: Why the Collectors of Children’s Books Need to Diversify
We need diverse books. But it’s not as simple as you think.
When I do presentations for up-and-coming authors and illustrators of children’s books I sometimes show them this slide:
Impossible to read here thanks to the teeny tiny type, this is my breakdown of the different factions that make up children’s literature. To spare your eyes I’ll just list them for you now:
Children’s Literature Fandom Simplified
- International Focus
I show this slide to new creators so that I can explain to them how different groups of people have different interests and attitudes towards books for kids. We all love them but sometimes we love them for very different reasons.
In my peculiar situation as blogger/librarian/parent/author/reviewer, daughter of a bookseller, with a love of international titles, and the occasional academic paper under my belt (Routledge) I still have some gaps. I’m no teacher. I work for a library, but that’s different from a non-profit. I’m no agent (nor will I ever be) nor a publisher. Yet over the years I’ve constructed this crazed One World paradise view where I can someday see ALL these different aspects of books for kids working together, talking together and generally trying to make this world a better place.
What does this have to do with the We Need Diverse Books movement? Everything.
Let’s examine what we mean when we say we need diverse literature for kids. First off, we want new books being published today to not only present better representation on the page for children, but we want the publishers themselves to increase the number of voices from a variety of different races, perspectives, religions, and backgrounds within the publishing companies themselves. We want teachers to learn about these books and to share them with their students. We want bloggers to step out of their comfort zones and talk about more diverse titles. Librarians and booksellers to share them with the people who walk through their doors. International books are inherently diverse, but let’s see more representation from countries other than Europe. We want more voices writing and illustrating these books (#ownvoices), academics not just talk about them in papers but to also teach new librarians and teachers what’s available. We want parents to be informed, non-profits to spread the love of the best of these books, agents to represent more voices, you name it!!!
Did I forget anyone?
You can’t pick and choose when it comes to diversity. Either we commit to this wholeheartedly or not at all. And so I ask you this – What is the most highly sought after children’s book written and/or illustrated by an African-American?
Why do I ask this question? Because when we talk about the people that collect children’s books, we’re talking about the people that assign a monetary worth to the books we work on or with so passionately. Most of us, I’d warrant, are unfamiliar with the world of the children’s book collectors. They’re a very specific group with, insofar as my research has indicated over the years, no overarching organization aside from that of general book collectors.
Years ago, I got a glimpse into their world. The Grolier Club in New York City was hosting the latest in its regular “One Hundred Books” series. This time it would be celebrating “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature”. Look at how vast that statement is. It does not limit any of these books by nation, creator, or time period. The sole stipulation would appear to be the fact that there need to be 100 of them. This can be misleading. As it turns out, exhibitions of this sort are often limited by the books they are able to attain at all. And so many collectors willingly lent their priceless books to the exhibit for a one-time-only showing. I saw such things . . . things like an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had marked passages in purple ink that would be used for “The Nursery Alice” published later in 1889, which was abridged for younger children. Or an edition of The Little Engine That Could from 1930 that precedes the Watty Piper one we all know so well. Or an edition of Harry Potter (the most controversial inclusion in the exhibit, as far as I could ascertain) that was a very rare library edition (only 300 copies were ever made) given to public libraries and featuring a blurb on the cover from a “Wendy Cooling”. I have in my possession the accompanying book that went with this exhibit and it is amongst my most treasured possessions.
And yet . . . even a surface glance around the room revealed pretty early on the sheer lack of diversity in the collection. Yes, there was The Snowy Day and Uncle Remus, but they were both written by white guys, yes? Is there a reason why the collectors weren’t displaying any diverse titles? The book accompanying the exhibit poses this question: “what are the criteria for inclusion?” As it turns out, the criteria seemed to boil down to the fact that the books had to be “famous”. And THAT right there is the rub of it.
Collecting anything with an eye to its worth means that the book is, in some way, famous, yes? Either that or the collector is convinced that the book will become famous in the future. So is it true that no diverse children’s book is famous? What about a first edition of Heather Has Two Mommies? Original Caldecott winners and honors like Grandfather’s Journey or pretty much anything by John Steptoe wouldn’t count?
To this, I have no answer. After all, I’m no collector. I’m still floored by the fact that they don’t set much store by ARCs and galleys (the ultimate ephemeral collectable, as far as I can tell). But if we want diverse books then we want the collectors to realize that there is more to the literature than yet another copy of Curious George. Which brings me to Stallion Books. And back catalogs.
I think that there’s a danger that comes with celebrating books that are always new (said the person who only reviews books published in the current year on her blog). The new is shiny. The new is beautiful and pleasing to the eye and ear. New books are fun and who wouldn’t feel a thrill if you received a box of them like an award committee does? But in all the celebration of new diverse titles let us not forget the diverse authors and illustrators who were already in the trenches producing books for kids that served as windows and mirrors for decades upon decades. They didn’t have non-profits proclaiming their titles widely. They just knew how to make good books.
Yesterday in Chicago I attended the Printer’s Row Lit Fest. Book vendors from all over the city and authors of all kinds were present. And on Dearborn Street, not far from Gino’s East of Chicago, was a stand for Stallion Books. I was particularly intrigued when I saw the cover of this catalog:
Inside is the full back catalog of the three authors/illustrators mentioned: Ashley Bryan, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, and Eloise Greenfield. That description at the top proclaiming them to be “Three Legends” is no misnomer either. All three have been working in the field for decades upon decades and even travel together to promote their books. Find a children’s library worth its salt and you’ll find copious titles by them on the shelves. Looking through the catalog I saw a Collectors Set of 128 of their titles for sale for $3,490, which is a cheap price all things considered. I mean, you could diversify your library collection instantaneously with that purchase.
Paging through the catalog, I got to thinking about why it is that children’s book collectors don’t know enough to realize that an original edition of any one of these authors’ books would be a sound investment. I suppose collectors only know as much as they themselves are taught. Many of them probably collect the books they read as children. With that thought in mind, let us hope that the kids of the 21st century are seeing books like those of Ashley Bryan, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, and Eloise Greenfield so that when they grow up and collect books for professional reasons, they’ll see the worth of these titles from both a monetary and a personal standpoint.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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