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Posted on Jun 11, 2014 in Blog, International, Writing

Promoting Diverse Books for Every Reader: The “Cheat Sheet” and More

Promoting Diverse Books for Every Reader: The “Cheat Sheet” and More

At the standing-room-only #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel at BookCon, panelist and award-winning author Grace Lin promised a “cheat sheet” to help attendees sell diverse books to readers who may not otherwise think those books are “for them.” This idea grew out of her own experience as a bookseller trying to broaden her customers’ horizons and helped her immensely when her own books were published. Debbie Reese of the must-read review site American Indians in Children’s Literature kindly shared her copy of the “cheat sheet,” and I have included it here with special thanks to Grace Lin for coming up with this idea and putting together the attractive graphic.

diversitysGrace uses the example of her own Newbery-honor Where The Mountain Meets the Moon, writing, “Instead of, ‘It’s about a girl in Ancient China trying to find good fortune with Chinese folktales woven in,” Try, “It’s an adventure story! The main character saves a dragon and they travel together on a great journey!” She goes on to talk up 16 other diverse books, from picture books to YA, published in the past few years, along with classics Jingle Dancer and We Were Here.

I would like to add two points to this excellent resource. One is that anyone can “try this at home,” and not just with the 17 books on the cheat sheet. At the afternoon multicultural publishers’ panel, John Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press made the important point that nearly half of the diverse books counted each year by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center are published by small presses. All 17 books on Grace’s list, however, come from the large publishing corporations. If small presses — which were committed to multicultural publishing before it became fashionable (if it ever does become fashionable) — are to continue their mission, they need us to booktalk their titles too. The same goes for diverse authors who have not enjoyed their publishers’ support, or who have not been invited to these kinds of panels. If they are going to be able to continue writing for young people, they need our love too. So here’s my mini-cheat sheet, beginning with my own small press classic, Gringolandia, and drawn from the books I’ve reviewed for The Pirate Tree.

GringolandiaInstead of, “It’s a historical novel about a teenage refugee from the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, trying to reconnect with his father, a recently released political prisoner,” Try, “A teenager struggles to reconnect with his father who was imprisoned and tortured by a brutal dictator– while trying not to end up in the same situation.” This pitch should connect with fans of dystopian literature whatever their ethnic background — and show also that dystopias exist in all kinds of places and eras.good-braider-hi-res

“After escaping with her mother from a bloody war, a teenage girl has to escape from her mother’s abuse.” (The Good Braider by Terry Farish)

marjoriagosin-ilivedonbutterflyhill“An 11-year-old girl must journey across the world and find her missing parents, using faith, a magic pendulum, and her own determination.” (I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín)

“A high school senior is breaking the law just by being herself. How can she get out of her seemingly hopeless situation and find a better life? (The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu)18079898


sugar-by-jewell-parker-rhodes“Her bosses and elders tell her to hate the newcomers to her community, but a spirited 10-year-old girl wants to be friends and believes the newcomers can save everyone.” (Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes)51Gvm1azWPL._SL500_AA300_

“A teenage boy trying to escape a brutal war encounters a former enemy who may or may not now be his friend.” (The Weaver’s Scar by Brian Crawford)

thedeep“A tough teenager  suddenly finds her long-missing mother and follows her into an underground world and a perilous mission to save the planet from evil.” (The Deep by Zetta Elliott)news145

“When a wealthy academy uses under-the-table methods to woo a talented basketball player, he has to decide where his loyalties and values lie.” (Next by Kevin Waltman)

You can do this too! If you’d like to annotate a book — yours or anyone else’s — feel free to do so in the comments, and I’ll add it to the post. I may also round up more of my Pirate Tree reviews at the end of the year.

And now the second point: In her blog post, Grace talked about her misgivings related to the cheat sheet, that “by describing the book without the multicultural label it could be construed that I was ashamed of it.” I would add that, in a way, talking about books without mentioning their setting or aspects of the characters is much like whitewashing their covers, or creating covers without any identifying images at all (as in, for instance, the cover of Rogue). However, a huge advantage of booktalking over cover design is that what we say can easily change, depending on our audience. There’s no shame in reaching for commonalities when trying to get outsiders to connect with books that show them the world outside their experience (what Rudine Sims Bishop has called “window books”). That doesn’t preclude a different approach when talking to young people who share the cultural background and experiences depicted in the stories (what Bishop has termed “mirror books”). Pitching books differently for different audiences still gives you the same book, which can then serve as a touchstone for dialogue and understanding.



  1. In my analysis of the books by US publishers on the Native American list at CCBC for 2013, I found about the same number of books from large and small publishers. What was important, however, was that the books from the small publishers were far better in terms of content and authorship, too. Small presses are more attention to quality of the diverse content. By that, I mean that the large presses give stereotyping, errors, and bias, a pass.

    I like your idea and will think about doing something similar. The fact is, most of the books I recommend at AICL are from small publishers.

    • I think where small presses have the advantage in addressing diversity is editors who are both committed and knowledgeable. I certainly felt that way with Curbstone Press publishing Gringolandia, because the first book Curbstone published was James Scully’s Santiago Poems, which documented the hours and days after the 1973 coup, and founder and editorial director Alexander “Sandy” Taylor translated the work of several Chilean writers living in exile. Cheryl and Wade Hudson, who established and run Just Us Books, are noted authors and scholars in their own right. And the list of small press editors with impressive qualifications goes on an on. For them, it’s a labor of love, not a means to squeeze bigger and bigger profits.

  2. Wow, this is great, Lyn. Thanks for sharing the “cheat sheet” and your own list of titles. It seems like we might be reaching critical mass on this issue–perhaps something will even change in publishing.

    • I hope so, Pam. I think that, in the long run, we’ll have better success helping smaller publishers to become bigger and stronger than convincing the Big Five to publish books that reflect the diversity of our young people in anything more than a token way. The economics of corporate publishing, including the difficulty recruiting editors of color given the low salaries and long road to promotion, are a major factor, along with the fact that giant corporations, whatever they produce or sell, are rarely responsive to local communities in the way that smaller, more nimble, locally-run businesses are.

    • Thank you, Sandra! I’m pleased to see that it’s getting a lot of conversation on Facebook, and I hope other people will pick some of their favorite small press books and do the same. Debbie Reese, of the site American Indians in Children’s Literature, makes important points about the role of small presses in producing accurate, well-written stories about people of color.

  3. Hi Lyn! What a great “cheat sheet.” Many thanks to you, Grace, and Debbie. (By the way, I’m adding a link to your blog! Apologies for missing it during the first round.)

    • Thank you for adding me to your blogroll, Ebony! I am honored to be on the list, especially as I plan to write more kidlit and writing-related posts. The blog originally started as a way of keeping friends and family informed about my life in Portugal, and while it still has somewhat of an expat focus (as I’ll continue to be in Portugal part of each year), diversity in books for children and teens is my primary one.


  1. #WeNeedDiverseBooks Incorporates, Is in for the Long Haul | Lyn Miller-Lachmann - […] in keeping with Grace Lin’s excellent Cheat Sheet, here’s my latest small press entry, which I covered earlier this…

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