In a 1986 essay, “Children’s Books: ‘I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry,’ ” Walter Dean Myers lamented a dearth of books about black children by black authors. At the time, he had already published 27 titles, crediting the rise of the mid-1960s civil rights movement with his early success as a black children’s book author. He credited an initiative called the Council on Interracial Books for Children, founded in 1966 by writers, parents and educators, for spurring a temporary spike in books for young black readers. But in the 20 years that had followed, the momentum had stalled. “Blacks were no longer a hot political issue,” Myers wrote. He closed the piece by urging black writers, parents and educators not to rely on the benevolence of the publishing industry to ensure diversity:
We should be able to command a great share of the market and fulfill much of our needs ourselves. If this seems unnecessarily harsh, or just not feasible, then we will simply have to wait for the next round of race riots, or the next interracial conflict, and the subsequent markets thus created. We can be sure, however, of one thing: if we continue to make black children nonpersons by excluding them from books and by degrading the black experience, and if we continue to neglect white children by not exposing them to any aspect of other racial and ethnic experiences in a meaningful way, we will have a next racial crisis.
Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” His son wrote a companion piece, “The Apartheid of Children’s Books.” A month later, the viral campaign-turned-nonprofit-organization #WeNeedDiverseBooks launched at BookCon ’14, marking a new market to push for publishing equity — a Council on Interracial Books for Children for a new generation. This year, of course, has seen that “next round of race riots,” that “interracial conflict” Myers predicted three decades ago. It’s hard not to connect the dots he left us: Both extreme white supremacy, espoused by 21-year-old Dylann Roof, and the more insidious implicit bias that’s far more common among young and old Americans, have been left to thrive, in part, due to years and years of racial exclusion and neglect within the publishing industry.
When BookCon reconvened this May, NPR reported that the impact of We Need Diverse Books was evident. Panels were more racially inclusive, including one led by rising literary star Daniel José Older, author of the short story collection “Salsa Nocturna” and the urban fantasy “Bone Street Rumba” series, who has written extensively about addressing diversity issues in writing and publishing. In a quote echoing Myers’s sentiments, Older told NPR, “We live in a very diverse world and literature needs to reflect that. And that it hasn’t is a failure — is a literary and a human failure.”
When his first YA novel, “Shadowshaper,” hit bookshelves this week, it announced the arrival of a new brown fantasy heroine — and not a moment too soon. Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Cuban street artist who discovers she has the ability to transform her art into shadow figures that will do her bidding, figures usually resembling the souls of dead loved ones. She’s one of many secret guardians of this gift, most of whom share Latino ancestry, and her mission is clear: protect the secrets of the shadowshapers from cultural appropriation. That’s right: The main villain in “Shadowshaper” is a white Columbia University professor who has convinced himself that he should be the new leader of this centuries-old, spirit-world-permeating coterie.
I can’t remember reading a book like this as a teen. I don’t recall one like this existing, let alone being widely distributed (“Shadowshaper” is published by Scholastic). It has been nearly two decades since I last set foot in a high school classroom as a student and almost as long since I read a YA novel. I graduated from high school on the cusp of the Internet age. Smartphones wouldn’t rise to power until I graduated from college. Starbucks and other designer coffee shops had yet to become go-to spots for teenagers’ first-job-paycheck squandering. And youth LGBT initiatives that championed openness and inclusiveness about all gender identities were still in their infancy.
A lot has changed in the lives of young readers, even if little has budged in the way of multicultural book publication numbers. Had “Shadowshaper” arrived when I was a teen, its grounding in 2015 reality would have seemed as much a part of its fantasy as the perambulating shadow-people. Instead, this book feels crafted precisely for the generation it is meant to serve. In danger, the characters reach for cellphones. They cluck over the rise of designer-coffee franchises in a Brooklyn that used to rely on mom-and-pops and bodegas. They worry that gentrification will price them out of their homes. Two young women in love confer with each other about the mysteries they’re helping their superpowered-friend solve and no one harps on their sexual orientation, in jest, fascination or otherwise. It isn’t treated, as it might have been when I was a teen, as an “edgy” or “controversial” plot device.
It’s exactly the kind of title Walter Dean Myers charged his peers to pen at the onset of his career and the kind of narrative he was still imploring publishers to fete in the twilight of his life, one that takes young readers, their unique needs and their racial and cultural realities seriously. “Shadowshaper” would make him proud.