In-Conversation with Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis PinkneyAndrea Davis Pinkney is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of more than 30 books for children and young adults, including picture books, novels, works of historical fiction and nonfiction. Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip through the Motown Sound (Roaring Brook) comes out this fall. Website: http://andreadavispinkney.com

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by Sara Ortiz

Andrea Davis Pinkney first performed the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on May 3, 2014 at the University of Minnesota. Sponsored by the Association for Library Services for Children, the lecture recognized Pinkney for significant contributions in literature for young people through a body of work that brings a deeper understanding of African American heritage. Pinkney induced chills through her performance as she stepped into the shoes and the attire of Zora Neale Hurston, Trayvon Martin, and Emitt Till.

Pinkney has led a rich career that encompasses both writing and many areas of publishing. She helped launch Disney Publishing’s Jump at the Sun imprint, the first African American children’s book imprint at a major house, and edited influential authors, such as Christopher Paul Curtis (Elijah of Buxton), Toni Morrison (Remember: The Journey of School Integration), and Sharon Flake (The Skin I’m In) among others.

Her own 30 plus titles include The Red Pencil, a novel about a 12-year-old Sudanese girl with hopes of fleeing Darfur; Hand in Hand: 10 Black Men who Changed America, includes figures from Barack Obama to Benjamin Banneker; and Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride, a picture book about a freed slave. A highly praised and award-winning author – with recognitions including the Coretta Scott King Book Award, Jane Addams Children’s Literature Honors, and an NAACP Image Award – Pinkney offers a powerful and eloquent voice on the topic of diversity in children’s literature.

Over a career in literature that spans 30 years, Pinkney is no stranger to talking about deep issues and real issues. Pinkney participated at TLA’s Children’s Book Diversity Summit and shared many insights with attendees. As a follow up, she agreed to sit down for an interview with TLJ on this most critical topic of diversity.

SARA ORTIZ: What do you remember about your first conversation concerning a need for diversity in children’s books?

ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY: The need for diversity has always been my primary purpose. It’s a conversation that’s been front-and-center for the 30 years I’ve worked in publishing, both as an editor and author. So there’s not a first time that I can pinpoint. As an African American writer, parent, and publisher, I live and breathe the importance of diverse perspectives.

SO: Can you shed some light on how you shared your “primary purpose” earlier in your career?

ADP: I started my editorial work in magazines. I was a senior editor at Essence magazine, the premier publication for black women and families. I oversaw the Lifestyle section of the magazine, and was responsible for producing children’s book reviews, as well as articles and product roundups for the magazine’s Parenting department. To build these sections of the magazine, I would call publishers and say, “Send me your best African American children’s titles.” This was the mid-1980s, and there was not a lot to choose from. It was discouraging, though it prodded me to make a change. The lack of diversity in children’s literature was one of the reasons I shifted careers from magazine publishing to book publishing.

SO: You saw a need. What steps did you take to fill it?

ADP: I’m under five-feet tall, but have been told that I have a big mouth for such a short person! I guess that got me somewhere, because I was constantly spouting off to people about the need for more books, across genres that featured characters of color. I would walk about, asking, “Why don’t these publishers create more books for kids of color?” Or, I would say, “Where are board books featuring black babies?” Or, “Why isn’t there a popular middle grade series for black girls, ages eight to fourteen?” Coming from Essence, it all seemed so obvious to me that there was a vibrant, robust market for these books. One of the gifts of working in magazines is that you have to be thinking of new ideas constantly. So I started to jot down ideas for books and series. And I started to think about which writers could be paired with illustrators to bring these ideas to life.

SO: What came next? Did you seek out a job in children’s publishing, or did someone approach you?

ADP: On a chance meeting, I met Willa Perlman, who was the publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s Division at that time. We were both standing in the Simon & Schuster booth at the Book Expo America convention. I explained to Willa that I was an editor at Essence. And then I started up with my big question: “Why aren’t publishers creating more diverse content – series, board books, narrative nonfiction?” Willa invited me to lunch. I offered her some of the ideas from my notebook. And she offered me a job!

SO: You mention that you can’t pinpoint the first time or exact conversation you had with someone else concerning the need for diversity in children’s books. Do you remember a moment, beside the one with the S&S publisher, where you spouted off, if not to a colleague, but to a friend?

ADP: (Laughs) Oh, yes! The brunt of my enthusiasm was my boyfriend at the time, and is now my husband, Brian Pinkney. Brian’s a children’s book illustrator, and he was in touch with publishers constantly. Poor Brian. I was always nagging him, showing him my notebook filled with ideas, saying things like, “Here’s an idea for a series! Call up your publisher!” Brian explained that the pairing of talent with ideas is what book editors do, and that I’d better take that job at S&S. And, Brian also encouraged me by saying, “Why don’t you write some of these books?” That’s when I had to stop spouting off, and turn my yapping into action!

SO: So much has happened since then. How are you an advocate for diversity in children’s books today?

ADP: I feel so fortunate to now be among a community of like-minded people. There’s such a robust dialogue happening today. In 2012 the Children’s Book Council founded CBC Diversity, an initiative that advocates for an inclusive and representative children’s publishing industry. As a member of the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee, I’ve enjoyed working with my publishing colleagues to create diversity programming, weekly blogs, curated resources for librarians, teachers, parents, writers, and publishing professionals, inclusive children’s and YA book lists, and more.
To learn more, visit cbcdiversity.com.

SO: We’re in 2015 now. And you recently attended the Children’s Book Diversity Summit in Austin, during the TLA Conference, how do you think the conversation has changed in the 30 years you’ve been in publishing?

ADP: The major change is that the conversation is happening widely. And it’s a dialogue that’s being sustained by voices from many sectors: publishers, authors, librarians, educators, parents. Also, we’re finally coming out of our silos and having these discussions together, with a unified purpose. Now it’s time to take these conversations further. We need to step it up. We need to pursue concrete, practical actions to back up our passion about this issue. This is something that we’re doing at CBC Diversity. But that’s not a panacea. We’ve all got to keep at it. In the words of the late Walter Dean Myers, “There’s work to be done.” 

SO: I really enjoy the contrast you just made between spouting off at home to one individual, versus publicly sharing your thoughts with 50 people in one room, if not the hundreds or thousands reading this conversation.

ADP: Yes, we’ve got to break out of our own little corners and come together as a unified front. It’s time to share what’s working. What successes are helping to move the needle?

SO: As you know, there are trends in publishing and trends with library patrons which don’t always mirror each other. Nevertheless, the need for diversity in literature affects both. What steps should librarians or educators or publishers take to improve the diversity gap?

ADP: We need to be intentional. Publishers can pledge to increase the percentages of diverse books on each list, and stick to that commitment. It’s important to stay connected by coming together at regular intervals to talk strategy and best practices. Social media is a great way to share our wealth of knowledge. Also, let’s remember that in each of our sectors, we have the unique ability to set the tone. Librarians can ensure that book displays, signage, recommended reading lists, and guest authors reflect a multicultural society.

SO: You and I had a brief conversation after the Diversity Summit, and we agreed that there was a need for a call-to-action. With so much going on around diversity now, is there anything we are missing? Any blind spots that could, as you suggest, help us to further “set the tone?”

ADP: Young people are the answer to this. It’s vital that we remember that we’re here to serve kids. Students – ranging from preschoolers to undergrads – are the thought-leaders and influencers of tomorrow. We adults have a big impact on children. Everyone’s talking about “gatekeepers” who have a stake in what kids read. But to me, “gatekeeping” implies denying access. I wonder if we can shift the paradigm and think of ourselves as “servers” versus “gatekeepers.” How are we serving young readers the content that will enhance their perspectives and encourage them to think broadly about books featuring people of color? We need to show emerging leaders that they, too, need to be intentional about diversity. This is done through the examples we set rather than preaching. That’s what “setting the tone” means – showing, not telling. And we need to listen. When kids tell me that they love or hate a book cover, or a depiction, I need to pay close attention. That’s why God gave me two ears and one mouth.

SO: Did you walk away with a particular learning moment after the summit?

ADP: There were many “ah-ha” moments, but one issue that struck an immediate chord was the importance of searchability as a tool for accessing diverse titles. People ask questions like, “Where are the books featuring gay Latino characters or fantasy titles with Asian girl characters?” There’s a good chance these books exist but aren’t catalogued to reflect these aspects of a story. At the summit, there was a discussion of BISAC codes and their importance. This is something we’ve been focusing on in our CBC Diversity work.

SO: You’re talking about the metadata.

ADP: Exactly. Metadata is our friend (laughs)! People are searching. Before readers even walk into a library, or put their hands on a book, they’re searching for electronically for specifics. We have to analyze and enhance the metadata. As we move forward, society is going to need more of that. That’s how younger people are getting information, and we have a responsibility to make that information available.

Created on Jul 21, 2015 | Last updated July 22, 2015