Episode 37! Conversation with Edi Campbell
Welcome to episode 37 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Edi Campbell discusses her essay "Black Girl Economics in YA Fiction" (which can be heard HERE) with Karen Blumenthal.
On today's Podcast you will hear:
Edith (Edi) Campbell is a quilter, mother, gardener, librarian, social justice advocate and more. She describes herself as an African American, able-bodied, cis gendered woman as well asan academic librarian who works particularly to improve the representation of People of Color and Native/First Nations people. She tries to be an ally for all marginalized young people and currently works as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Indiana State University. Her thought-provoking blog, CrazyQuiltEdi, is titled that because crazy quilts are a unique quilt “that combines fabrics of all shapes, sizes, textures and colors into a unique piece of art,” which is what she desires for young people.
Karen Blumenthal, a long-time journalist, writes nonfiction for young people with the belief that nonfiction brings context to a complicated world. She is particularly fascinated by social change, how it happens and why. Her books include the Siebert Honor Book Six Days in October: The Stock Crash of 1929 and Let me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America. Her new book Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend is out now Learn more about Karen at her website: www.karenblumenthal.com.
Karen: Hi, I'm Karen Blumenthal. I'm talking today with Edi Campbell, who wrote two excellent essays for Kid Lit Women; Black Girls Economics in Young Adult Fiction, and a second one, Black Girls Economics in Young Adult Fiction Part Two. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Edith: Thanks for having me.
Karen: I thought these numbers were absolutely shocking. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why you think they're so terrible.
Edith: Well, if you look overall at all books authored by BIPOC authors, black, indigenous or people of color, self-authored own voices books, they're only eight percent so there's just not that many. If you parse it by gender and ethnicity, you're going to get even fewer.
Karen: Men, are they better represented in these categories?
Edith: I've not looked at the numbers on men. I think they're both so low that it doesn't really matter who is better because they're both ... I think that there are, I want to say there are fewer men, but I'm not sure. They're both just ... There's just not enough of either of them.
Karen: We're talking today in late July, and at this moment, the number one and then number two books on the young adult bestseller list of the New York Times are African-American women, and number five on the middle grade fiction is Tracey Baptiste with the Minecraft book. Is this a good thing or does that maybe send a message to people that they don't need to be more concerned?
Edith: I think that's a good thing. I think that's a really good thing because typically when we talk about, I'm using air quotes around the word "diversity," we're talking about representation. We're simply talking about parsing numbers, and we're not talking about the quality of the books themselves. If we see two African-American or a total of three African-American women on the bestsellers list, the quality has to be there in those books if they're selling. They have appeal if they're selling. I think that's good.
Karen: Do you think that might encourage publishers to seek out more authors?
Edith: I don't understand publishers. I'm not sure how to answer that because their bottom line is the dollar. It is not representation. It is not diversity. It's not social justice. It is not equity. It is the bottom dollar, and they're going to do what sells.
Edith: The demand has to continue. We have to keep saying this is what we want. I think a large part of the problem when we talk about diversity and when we need diverse books started, somehow the message got out there that we simply wanted more books with African-Americans, with Latinos, with Asian Americans, with people with disabilities or LGBT representation, and it didn't matter who wrote it. It didn't matter the quality. It didn't matter how well the representation was there. That's not what most of us wanted. We wanted the representation. We want the equity. We want the inclusion in those books.
Edith: I think as long as we're critical of the books that just aren't getting it right, hopefully, they'll realize that they have to get it right. That's not to say that marginalized authors always get it right. We don't, but we deserve the opportunity to be able to tell our own stories.
Karen: Do you think that some marginalized authors feel discouraged? I've had several conversations with people in my community who are interested in publishing but then they've chosen the self-publishing route instead. Maybe they feel like there's not going to be a fair opportunity for them or that their particular story won't be respected. Is that something that you've run across and give me thoughts on that?
Edith: I think there had been quite a few who have gone that route, either because they were discouraged by not being able to get published or they just saw a better opportunity. I think that self-publishing is getting a better name for itself that it is not a lesser way of getting books published. I think many authors find out that they weren't just as hard if they published their own books or have someone else publish them for them. I do think they get discouraged, but I think some of them simply choose self-publishing as well. There's a greater freedom of expression in going that route.
Karen: My concern is it's harder to get a book out into the world. It's just very hard to sell 500 or 1,000 books by yourself.
Edith: Even if you have a publisher, it can be very hard. If you're not an A-list author, it can be very hard to get those numbers, to get the numbers of books sold that that need to be sold to get that second book contract.
Karen: That's very true. You talk in your essay about looking for evidence of value inside the narratives as an area to go forward with your thinking and your research. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Edith: Sure. I'm talking about from an economic perspective, economic value. How are they bringing something to their communities or to their families? What evidence is there of that, of these girls? Because they are so invisible in society. When we read books that center black girls, when they're the main characters in the stories, how are they valued? What do we see them doing in their homes, in their communities, in schools that is empowering for themselves, and how do their communities view them? What expectations are placed upon them from their family members or their community members? Who reaches out to mentor them or to give them any kind of guidance? Who are the important adults in their lives? What are some of the communities that they belong to? Not just their neighborhoods, but what associations and affiliations do they also have?
Karen: Were there any challenges for you in approaching these essays? This is work that you have been doing for a while. Is that right?
Edith: I'd say over a year, not quite two years, just over a year that I've been doing it. It's the area of research that is sticking with me the most. I can't even remember the first things I started writing about black girls, but I do remember that it started with that incident when the young lady was thrown out of her desk by a grown man in a high school. I believe it was a high school situation. To see that happen to a girl in school was just so foul and vicious to watch. I blocked something shortly after that, and my attention turned towards looking for white papers and research on black girls, and then I started looking at some of the fiction, some of the young adult fiction to see where our girls, how they're presented in the fictions, how many black females are telling our stories? When we tell our own stories, when black women write about black girls, how are we portraying ourselves in these stories?
Karen: It turned out that it wasn't a very deep pool to-
Edith: Exactly. You think of all of these women who write, and you think of these names and very distinguished names, and you think there should be lots and lots of books, lots of authors, and you start making a list, and there just aren't that many. If you look at it on an annual basis, there just aren't that many there. It's really interesting. I've had this conversation with a few people recently. It's interesting when you think of people like even Jacqueline Woodson, if you think of Nikki Grimes, if you think of ... The names are escaping me, which is just more evidence of part of it is being nervous [crosstalk 00:09:33] right now, but these names should be on the tip of my [crosstalk 00:09:35]. Yeah, these names should be on the tip of my tongue, and African-American women just do not get the notice that they deserve for their work.
Karen: Right. There's just not as many. It's telling in one way that when I look at your list, I'm familiar with most of these authors. Whereas, there's a many, many authors, embarrassingly I have not heard of, who I probably should have. On the other hand, I write nonfiction. I know there's just not a large number that ... I'm more than familiar with Tonya Bolden's work, and yet in the narrative area, Andrea Pinkney writes mostly picture books but also the narrative, but there's just not a lot of others. I'm painfully aware of it, and even more so, I know we wrote on Kid Lit Women some about honors and awards. I'm completely disturbed that Tonya Bolden has never been a Sibert honor or a Sibert winter, and that a number of white authors have one for civil rights or African-American history topics. This to me is just a terrible crime. Do you see that pattern as well?
Edith: I hate to say that I have not paid that much attention to nonfiction. Fiction gets all the glory. Christine Taylor-Butler is another nonfiction author. When you think of Maritcha and you think of the writing that Tonya does and how she takes those young readers along with her, how she essentially teaches them, she shares her research process with them. Her work is just amazing, and the topics that she covers, the work she puts into it. I do know that Tonya is very busy and we're going to see a lot from her over the next couple of years. She's got a book out right now. I can't think of the name of it. It's a biography.
Karen: Frederick Douglass.
Karen: I have a copy of it right here.
Edith: Gorgeous book.
Karen: It's excellent. It's outstanding.
Edith: It's gorgeous.
Karen: Yeah, I know.
Edith: Do you hear anything about it? I don't hear anything about it.
Karen: It did get very good reviews. I've been trying to figure out how to start a social media campaign. Besides, our president says he's heard. He's a pretty good guy. Something like that, I don't know. Tonya should straighten them out. I haven't met her. I would like to, but I have not met her, but maybe she can straighten them out.
Karen: Is there anything else that you would have liked me to ask you about that I didn't about your essays? I have a couple of additional questions for you.
Edith: I think we covered them pretty well. I think you asked some great questions.
Karen: We've been asked to ask two questions of everybody. Just an elevator pitch, if you will, on what you're working on now, your next research, investigation or project.
Edith: I am continuing Black Girl Economics. I have a part two to that. I'll be presenting that at NCTE in November. It's my first trip to NCTE, so I'm really looking forward to that. I've got a ton of projects going on. Here at work, I've got a couple of projects to work on success of our first generation students. Those will take place in the fall. I'm developing a poetry maker space with a couple of organizations on campus, and that'll be part of LatinX Heritage Month. I'm updating our teaching materials collection. Inside our library, we have essentially a children's library that I'm responsible for. I've got that African-American youth lit class that I mentioned that I'm trying to get ready for the spring. I've got an [ALS 00:13:54] presentations coming up in September. Those are just a few of the things I have right now.
Karen: Wow, that's a lot of things that you're juggling. Goodness. What is your biggest publishing dream? Think big here.
Edith: Well, you said dream, big dream. I just really like the idea of writing nonfiction for children, and I'm sure you know how fulfilling that is. You write nonfiction. I'd like to really have the time to do the research and to write and have published nonfiction primarily for teens that will help them feel validated in the world and that will be compelling and engaging for them.
Karen: I highly encourage you to do this. Go for it.
Edith: Thank you.
Karen: That's awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for your wonderful essays.
Edith: Thank you. I appreciate this opportunity. I appreciate the interest.