In Search of a Black Nancy Drew
Call it, Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Lack of Minorities in Young Reader Books.
Last week, publisher Simon & Schuster announced that they were going to publish children’s books featuring Muslim characters and stories under the imprint, Salaam Reads. I’m all for diversifying books for kids, considering there is so little diversity out there. I’m not just talking about Muslims but all non white races and non Christian religions. Go ahead and name three books for Jewish children ages 8-12 that don’t have anything to do with the Holocaust or are called Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I’ll wait.
One of the most uncomfortable moments in my bookselling career would be when a parent asked me for a Young Reader book with a black protagonist. Unfortunately, I could only meekly offer the far too young Little Bill (the Bill Cosby children’s line, obviously now defunct), a Matt Christopher book with a black boy on the front cover, or a title I had seen where a “black friend” was hanging out with the lead character. Those books never really addressed this friend’s ethnicity and was a way of allowing the author and publisher to appear diverse.
That last option was not even an option until a few years ago. During the Little Bill days of the early 2000’s, you could not find a book for a child of color that was not non-fiction history or about civil rights or slavery. There seemed to be zero urgency in publishing books about modern black children and their everyday lives.
Sorry kids of the 80’s and 90’s. This is it. At least the Oscars could take a page from all of these accolades?
Sure, there is the fantastic Judy Blume book, Iggie’s House but even that has to do with a black family being targeted by their new neighbors. It wasn’t as though I didn’t order books in that would cater a diverse audience. They were all eventually sent back to the publisher. So why is this? Well, it comes down to numbers and localization, not sentimentality. There are two categories for books: modeled and non-modeled. A modeled book is a title a store MUST keep until it is changed at some unknown point in it’s life. If it sells, another arrives to replace it. A store is modeled for so many copies, depending on how well it sells there and if a book’s sales are fantastic, it will keep it’s modeled status for some time.
Any book can be born as non-modeled but this is not exactly a death sentence. It means that a publisher may send it to you but it might not be replaced when it sells because it may not be selling great anywhere or they didn’t publish many. Or they are depending on you, the bookseller, to order more in if you think it will do well. When it comes to (mostly) non-modeled books, if they don’t sell in a certain amount of time (paying for their real estate) back to the publisher they go. Then they go to the bargain section or as I prefer to call it, book heaven. If they’re lucky and hardcover. A lot of bargain is published to be solely bargain but that’s another article.
“We were once like you…”
So all of the books I could find over the years (that featured African American children) had only so much time to sell and pay for their real estate before they were sent back and then we would be asked for them. Then we would order some in… . It was a vicious cycle. Things have improved in the Teen department thanks to Bluford High and Walter Dean Myers and Angela Johnson but Young Readers (ages 8-12) are still largely ignored.
If you’re a white Christian or non-religious child, the book selection is endless. Not that minority children can’t enjoy A Wrinkle in Time or the Narnia series or that white kids can’t read Sounder without crying but there comes a time when you want to feel a real life connection with the characters you are so wrapped up in. Reading is a form of escapism but after so many times escaping into the lives of those who would not understand your plight, when do you start feeling alienated?
I’m a big fan of the Nancy Drew series (yes, they were racist in the 30’s but the publisher has long corrected this) and have argued many times that a version of the girl detective as black protagonist, would sell like crazy. It’s because the mystery and camaraderie between three girlfriends is the core of every Nancy Drew book, allowing children of all ages and races to enjoy the entire series. Can someone please get on this? A strong black girl living her modern life and solving mysteries would be a home run but no one listens to me.
So until a talented black writer decides to come up with such a successful concept (I won’t pretend that I would be able to do it justice), here are some books I hope will tide you over:
Now…I’m Spanish. How about a book that doesn’t have to do with Esperanza Rising?