Diversity. What comes to mind when you hear that word? In my experiences, as the author of the Callaloo children’s book series, it’s a word that doesn’t matter.
In the U.S. the word diversity is touted around as if the act dismantles bias. For the last six years, I have engulfed myself in the independent children’s publishing industry, with no prior experience as a children’s author -- and it’s clear to me diversity is a temporary band-aid for systematic shortcomings.
According to a 2017 Cooperative Children’s Book Center study, 31% of children’s books in the mainstream publishing industry featured multicultural themes, but only 7% of those books were written by authors and illustrators of color. This shows that the publishing industry acknowledges an audience that is desperately in search of books and images that truly reflect varied experiences of children of color, however, publishers prefer to award the work to white authors due to bias.
If you have ever visited the Caribbean you may have heard of callaloo, a popular spinach stew with West African roots, similar to African-American gumbo and Puerto Rican asopao. However, callaloo is a symbol of the interconnectedness of black diaspora culture, its folklore, and its descendants. In 2012 when I began writing my first book entitled Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale, I was rejected by every publisher and agent, who either didn’t believe in me as an unknown writer or flat out told me these stories had no audience and were not profitable. I knew they were wrong because these stories were my lived experiences and I knew so many children and families who have preserved similar customs. The Callaloo brand has since reached thousands of children and families worldwide with five books, live shows, and online education tools. We did it as independent publishers -- largely because that was the only option. Storytelling in its authentic form has true power. Take a look at Walt Disney, who made billions of dollars off of European folk stories. If he could do it, why couldn’t I be given a platform to showcase black folklore and tradition?
One may argue that European storytelling and aesthetics in America were valued long before Walt Disney came along. We must ask ourselves as a society, how are we processing the international, economic and industry-riveting success of "Black Panther"? The reaction made it clear -- we, as black and brown people, are starving to see our authentic selves in the media, created by people that look like us and in a way that feels true to first-hand experiences.
In less than six years, my Callaloo company has been recognized by notable institutions such as the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian and Sesame Street, distributed in international bookstores and libraries with complete independence. So why hasn’t the larger publishing industry caught on to this movement that celebrates the stories, culture, and values of the African Diaspora? In my experience, it’s been an issue of power and hesitance to create space for non-white and unfamiliar voices.
On this journey, I have learned there’s plenty of “diversity” in children’s publishing as I’ve met hundreds of authors and illustrators of color across the world who are creating incredible work for our youngsters. A lack of diversity isn’t the roadblock, the problem is equity. Until we have access to resources and respect for our perspectives, aesthetics, and culture is shown, we will always have this “diversity” problem.
Callaloo is a kids media company developed to empower children to be global citizens through cultural literacy. The book series, digital shows, and puppet infused plays reflect the experiences of the first-generation Caribbean and African-American youth. The group’s fifth book entitled “Callaloo: The Trickster and the Magic Quilt” is set to release on Juneteenth, (June 19) and celebrates Southern African-American Gullah folklore, quilting, and language and is crafted to educate children about the unspoken contributions of African Diaspora storytelling.