by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, 2023 CCIRA Author/Presenter
Educators… you should know… there have been whispers. In my private messages, in subtweets, in texts, and in quiet conversations amongst children book authors, I am hearing a sad admission: “The ‘George Floyd Effect’ on publishing is fading.”
The George Floyd Effect.
What do we do with that phrase? A phrase that comes from the wrongful loss of a life? An internet search would show you two meanings for it: one that speaks to the way that institutions like schools and publishing and even corporate coffee chains scrambled in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder to reflect upon and address their racism and a second meaning focused on blaming the deceased for criminality and lawlessness (we’ll ignore that one). That first usage of the phrasing impacted what books became available for our classrooms and library shelves. It meant that publishers made extra efforts to employ Black talent and publish Black creatives. It meant more Black children’s books were coming and more schools were prioritizing getting them.
Because these books were “needed.”
In July 2020, my second book Your Name is a Song had unexpectedly sold out its first printing on the first day of release. I was told books like mine were needed in the aftermath of brutality. And I watched many books about race become bestsellers. Meanwhile, at the request of my editor, I had been working for days on end to add back matter for Hold Them Close, a book that seeks to help Black kids make sense of racism. I sat in a hotel room in Center City Philadelphia when protests broke out in the streets, working to mold historical facts of racial violence into short and accessible sentences for youth. I pushed through when I wanted to run into the streets too. To scream, to cry, to mourn. To stop and reflect even on my feelings about senseless death being necessary for people to see the worthiness of our books. But I pushed through because of the repeated refrain that these books were so needed in that moment.
They’ve always been needed though. They continue to be.
There is article upon article about the importance of Black representation for Black children in developing their self worth. Many of us are aware of Rudine Sims Bishop’s work of describing books as “mirrors” or stories where we see ourselves and are affirmed therein; and as “windows” when we see others and truly empathize with them and possibly even enter the “sliding glass doors” of their worlds. Additionally, in our context where racism persists, we know sources that teach about racism and its history honestly are necessary for change. In the aftermath of George Floyd, Black authors ploughed on as we always do to create texts of joy and of pain, of fun and of importance, of our authentic stories. However, I believe many of us hoped that this moment for change would be something more. We understood it required more than a moment. Our kids needed it to be longer than a moment.
But the George Floyd effect is fading.
Recent research by WordsRated has suggested that the boom in bestselling children’s books with Black characters was fleeting. By 2021, the number of bestselling children’s books with Black characters had decreased by 23%. Gone is that brief moment in time when Black character books and their authors were in demand. Gone are big publishing’s promises as they now dismantle Black imprints and rid themselves of staff unceremoniously. Gone are the promises of big bookstore retailers to support diverse books. As such, educators are now left to contend not only with the old status quo of options for their students but also a new pressure…
The backlash to antiracism, the backlash to more stories giving our kids new perspectives and opportunities for empathy, and the backlash to people simply caring about Black life has been book banning. The response has been to stamp out the literary existence of Black people and their history from schools. I watched books like mine–ones that were “so needed” the year before– get banned in a few districts while Black bestsellers of 2020 became banned in countless U.S. school districts and library systems. Additionally, because anti-Blackness seems to be the gateway to all kinds of bigotry in our societal context it meant that the bans then extended to literature about indigenous peoples, POC, and in particular, LGBTQ communities. At the root, yet and still, is this nation’s historical commitment to denying the humanity of Black people.
So what do we do?
How do we ensure that our kids have access to diverse stories at all times, not just in tragic moments and also in spite of those who see that access is threatening. I suggest:
- Audit your bookshelves for diverse and equitable representation every year. Do a deeper dive after the audit.
- Discuss representation in books with students and what books get banned. Spark conversations and new ways of thinking.
- Proactively develop the language to argue against bans. Here are talking points.
- Develop an awareness of lesser known Black book creators (and those from other marginalized communities). Request their books in your schools and libraries to continue communicating the demand to the industry that we need many voices.
- Organize at the local level. Get to know who makes these decisions and organize around their elections.
- If you experience a ban, organize on social media and reach out to authors who are banned. They and others may amplify your efforts as in the case of this campaign.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is is a Philadelphia-based, award-winning children’s book author. A former English teacher, she educated children and teens in traditional and alternative learning settings for more than 15 years. Her picture books and middle grade fiction, which feature young Black and Muslim protagonists, have been recognized as the best in children’s literature by Time Magazine, Read Across America, NCTE, and NPR, and she is a 2021 Irma Black Award Honor author. In addition to producing children’s literature, she invests her time in the mentorship of aspiring children’s book authors through multiple programs including We Need Diverse Books and the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation where she is also a program committee member.