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Every year, we use Black History Month as an excuse to audit the diversity of the authors we review. Why? Well, because we truly believe we are what we read; and also because we truly believe that the best way to expand your horizons (when you can’t actually travel or talk to new people) is to read books written by or about people who are different from you (in our case people of color, or people living outside the USA). It is our hope these audits expose the voices we are missing in our own personal reading habits, and allow us to fill those gaps during our next year of reviews. Our latest audit results are discussed below today’s new reviews of some great books for adults, young adults, children, and toddlers.
Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes (2019) - Memoirs often pull at one's heartstrings, and this one definitely does. But it also is so full of hope -- possibly because as we read, we know Ms. Grimes successfully emerged from her childhood of traumas (estranged but loving father, mother with severe mental health issues, poverty, foster care) to become an award-winning poet. Perhaps my favorite moment of hope emerges at the end of this memoir, when as a young woman she has the courage to approach James Baldwin after a reading, tell him she is a writer too, and ask him to view her work. He does so; and then, he provides his phone number for her to call. I love it because it shows Mr. Baldwin as a caring person, but mostly because it shows that Ms. Grimes had the gumption to believe in herself when her circumstances could have caused the opposite response. Written with a poet's excellent word choices, this book is for everyone. (This book was briefly reviewed during our 2019 Pages in the Pub - https://www.bookjamvermont.com/book-reviews/pages-in-the-pub-strikes-again-with-books-for-holiday-giving-and-getting.) ~ Lisa Christie
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019) - In this compact and powerful novel, National Book Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson deftly explores issues of race, class, identity, and sexuality. In just under 200 pages she manages to convey generations of information about Iris and Aubrey, two Black teenagers in New York whose families are brought together by an unexpected pregnancy and the birth of their daughter Melody. It is narrated in alternating chapters by Melody, Iris, and Aubrey, as well as their parents who have among them survived race riots in Tulsa, rebuilt lives, struggled with poverty, attended college, and landed in very different economic locations. What results is a moving portrait of two families whose members both young and old have disparate voices, varied dreams, and whose identities have been shaped by very different influences. This complicated past converges in the no less fraught present at the beginning of the novel on the eve of Melody’s fifteenth birthday in a brownstone in Brooklyn. These beautifully drawn characters are sure to stay with readers long after they have turned the last page. When interviewed by Trevor Noah in October 2019 on “The Daily Show,” Woodson offered that she hoped for readers of her book to “fall in love with the characters and [that] it makes them want to create some kind of change.” I share her hope. Highly recommended. ~Lisa Cadow
NOTE: If Book Jammers have time this month to listen to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en
2nd NOTE: Ms Woodson also wrote a memoir for elementary school aged readers that was one of Lisa Christie's younger son's favorites from 4th grade - Brown Girl Dreaming. Ms. Woodson's story emerges as a tale about the Civil Rights movement, growing up, and finding one’s voice as a writer and a person. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed by the Book Jam in April of 2019 -https://www.bookjamvermont.com/young-adult--kids/some-great-chapter-books-for-kids-adults-to-discuss)
With The Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019) - The author of Poet X does it again by creating a great book for YA fans. With prose instead of poetry this time, Ms. Acevedo again brings us vividly into the world of teens around Harlem. This time, we see life through the eyes of Emoni Santiago, a high school senior whose dreams of being a chef are complicated by her toddler daughter's and aging abuela's respective needs. A NPR review goes into greater plot detail for those who need more information before picking this up. I for one wish the book came with a cookbook. ~ Lisa Christie
Look Both Ways: A tale told in ten blocks by Jason Reynolds (2020) - Lisa Cadow's pick of one of Ms. Woodson's books for adults in this post reminded me of another of my son's favorite authors from elementary school - Jason Reynolds. So because we needed a book for kids for today's post, we sought out his latest book for kids - Look Both Ways. In it, he explores ordinary walks home, their humor, and how if you pay attention, they can be pretty spectacular - even the inevitable unsuccessful and often painful detours. (We have reviewed books by Mr. Reynolds on multiple posts, most recently in March of 2019 - https://www.bookjamvermont.com/kids-at-heart/ya-for-all-who-love-good-books.) Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
Little Legends: Exceptional men in Black history (2019) & Little Legends: Bold women in Black history both by Vashti Harrison (2017) - We heard about these books on NPR last week and had to check them out. The author, with fun illustrations and concise prose, provides a great introduction to people we should all know. We are glad these books mean our youngest readers (and the adults who read with them) will. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
So now to the results from our audit of books we read during the period of this audit (between February 2019 and this post). The fine print for this audit: we did not include guest columns, or "Pages in the Pub", "BOOK BUZZ", or the “3 Questions” series, because we don’t control those selections. We also excluded books written by groups such as Lonely Planet or series written by a variety of authors. Although we know some of the authors we highlighted identify as members of the LGBTQ community, we do not know the sexual orientations for all the authors we review, and thus do not audit by sexual orientation. We also do not have access to economic class statistics. Thus, our diversity audit focuses on gender and race/ethnicity.
That said, we will begin with the fact the number of books we reviewed decreased significantly. We reviewed 94 books in the 2019 audit (again the period between February 2019 and this post), compared with 202 books reviewed in 2018, and 164 in 2017. While we maintain the quality of books reviewed remained the same, the decrease in numbers has us wondering who we missed.
Some significant numbers from this 2019 audit: Women authors were 57% of the authors we featured. Almost a quarter (21%) of all authors we featured were white women from the USA (compared to 32% in 2018), and 20% of all authors we read were white women from outside the USA (up from 8% in 2018). Only a few (2%) of our featured authors were Latinas (down from 4%), and 4% were Asian women (down from 6%). Exactly 10% of the authors were Black women from around the world (down from 12%).
There was also slightly less diversity of ethnicity in the men we reviewed. White men from the USA were 17% (down from 23% the previous audit) of the authors we featured. Slightly over one in ten (13%) of the authors we featured were white men from outside of the USA (up from 8%). Exactly 5% (down from 7% previous audit) of the authors were black men from anywhere in the world. Very few authors (1%) we featured were Asian men or Latinos (1%), none were Middle Eastern men (down from 2% last year). We did increase the number of Native American male authors we featured (2%) this year, compared to none last year.
Adding men and women together, 28% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (down from 36% the previous audit). Within the white authors there was a significant increase in geographic diversity, a third (33%) of the white authors we featured were from outside the USA (significantly up from 16% last year). The largest group of authors of color were Black (15% of all authors reviewed). This was up slightly from 13% of all authors reviewed last audit.
There were two increases in diversity of authors. One - we finally reviewed books by Native American writers. Two - we increased the diversity of the countries of origin of the white authors we reviewed; white authors from outside of the USA more than doubled over previous years (33% compared to 16%).
To sum, for the first time since we began this audit, we did not improve the percentage of authors of color we reviewed: 28% of authors in 2019, 36% of authors in 2018, 32% in 2017, 26% in 2016, 23% in 2015 were persons of color. (We take some comfort in increasing the number of authors from outside the USA who we featured.) And while we remain curious if our percentages are greater than the percentages of authors of color who are actually published in the USA each year (because this affects the pool from which we can select books), we do not excuse our lack of increasing the diversity of authors we feature. Once again, we vow to review a greater diversity of authors. 2020 will be better.