As the We Need Diverse Books campaign gained steam throughout May, one of the many questions asked was how to create an environment that encouraged the publication of diverse books. First Book saw this conversation and decided to take a step to create a market-driven need for diverse books and authors by setting up its latest iteration of The Stories for All Project.
I talked to Kyle Zimmer, president and CEO of First Book, about the organization and its newest initiative.
What is First Book and its mission? Does it just work with schools or does it serve other places as well?
First Book is nonprofit social enterprise that provides the highest quality books and resources to a network of the schools, classrooms and programs serving children in need across the United States and Canada. The First Book network includes a tremendous range – everything from traditional classrooms to libraries, churches, homeless shelters and healthcare settings. Any setting serving children in need is welcome to join the First Book network at firstbook.org.
How did The Stories for All Project come about?
Like many people, we’ve known for decades that the lack of diversity in children’s literature was an enormous issue that needed to be addressed.
What distinguishes First Book is our approach to the issue of diverse content. We believe that we will only show significant and lasting change if we institute a market-driven solution. The publishing industry is made up of wonderful, talented people who share our passion for helping kids become readers – but they are also running businesses in an industry that is struggling with gigantic stresses. The more confidence they have in the vibrancy of the market for diverse content, the more strongly they will step into that space.
So we created The Stories for All Project as a way to put our thumb on the scale, so to speak. By pledging to buy more books featuring diverse characters and stories, we’re showing the publishing industry that there really is a market out there for these titles, a market that First Book is strengthening and aggregating.
Those 120,000 educators and program leaders we work with may not have much purchasing power as individuals, but as a group they represent a real, vibrant market. And because we hear from them daily about the resources they need, we’re able to commit to these purchases with confidence.
I saw that in 2013 you chose two publishers (HarperCollins, Lee & Low) and placed a $500K purchase order each. How does the 2014 Initiative compare to last year’s?
The purchase of $1 million worth of books from HarperCollins and Lee & Low in 2013 was our first big push as part of The Stories for All Project. Those books, featuring a wide array of different characters and stories, have been extraordinarily popular with the groups we serve, as we knew they would be. In fact, we were able to add more than 600 titles featuring a range of under-represented voices and stories for our network.
This year, we’re trying something that is both more subtle and – in the long run – more powerful. Rather than purchase existing titles, we’ve asked every publisher to show us some of amazing books from two categories:
1) Diverse content from previously unpublished authors and illustrators; or
2) Terrific books representing diverse content that they have never released in paperback.
We’ve pledged to purchase 10,000 copies of each title we select, which will give the publishers the baseline market they need to publish these books more broadly. It’s a true win for everyone – the schools and programs First Book serves get access to amazing new books that better reflect their lives at special prices, the publishers are able to commit to diverse new authors and illustrators, and (once published) these books will also be available to ALL children via the general market.
Are there any specifics in place about the number of books that First Book will be picking?
As for numbers, we’re keeping our options open until we see what the publishers have to offer. We may select as few as a handful of titles, or we may select dozens.
I saw that at the moment, the initiative is focusing on picture books. Is that correct? And are there plans to expand that in the future?
This year, our focus is on picture books. We listen closely to the teachers, librarians and community leaders in our network about what they need, and picture books are in substantial demand. But we are absolutely committed to supporting the market across all categories. Stay tuned for new strategies and – in fact – we would welcome ideas for innovative ways to expand this market.
From what I can see, one part of the initiative is focused on new authors and illustrators. Why do you think it is important to focus on specifically unpublished writers?
There are so many tremendous stories out there, and so many voices that no one has heard yet. First Book is in the unique position of representing the demands of the base of economic pyramid in North America, we’re using our power in the marketplace to help make a place for some of these new voices. This opportunity has never existed before and it inspires everyone at First Book to help make this change in the world.
Have you noticed an interest or need for diverse books with the schools and communities you have been serving prior to this point?
Without question. These books aren’t just something that would be nice to have, these are desperately needed resources.
Last year, we surveyed our network about this issue. Over 2,000 educators responded, and 90% of them told us that the children in their classrooms and programs would be more enthusiastic readers if they had access to books with characters, stories and images that reflect their lives and their neighborhoods.
This is a critical, dire need that has gone unmet for generations. The Stories for All Project is our way of helping to fix the problem once and for all.
Is there anything the general public can do to help?
Of course, as a nonprofit, we are always constrained by our resources. If any of your readers can help us raise additional funds – we would be delighted to use those funds to launch more wonderful new authors with this campaign. Please tell them to contact me with ideas for expansion!