What if you gave a contest and nobody came?

For the record, the title of this blog is meant to be a hook. Authors know what I mean, that thing good novels use to capture a reader’s attention. In reality, the contest I am going to tell you about had lots of entries. Entries that shared more than a few things in common.

Last month I announced a contest on my website, http://babinns.com. It was sponsored by my publishing company, AllTheColorsOfLove Press (aka ME) and offered free tuition to Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day, PWID. PWID is an Illinois SCBWI conference held in Palatine, Illinois on the campus of Harper College in November.  The contest goal was to find a worthy author or illustrator outside the mainstream and pay his/her tuition.

What do I mean by mainstream? In the United States at least, the vast majority of children’s book writers, illustrators, editors and reviewers are white, middle class, and female. Year after year this has been the predominant crowd at PWID and other conferences I attend, including the national conference in New York (I have never been to the Los Angeles conference, but something tells me things would not be that different there.) I’m not sure about LGBTQ+ attendees, or people of religious backgrounds outside the mainstream, I can only guess.  As a black female children’s author, I’ve had to accept being being one of three, or two, or sometimes no other black faces at writing events, along with a smattering of Hispanics and Asians. I am never sure how many other attendees notice the lack of crowd diversity, but I always do. It’s hard to miss when you are “the only one of your kind” in a standing room only crowd.

2016 marked a change for PWID. A portion of the  faculty includes individuals outside the mainstream. After I saw the lineup I had to take a few minutes to pick my beating heart up from the floor. Kids are not the only students who need mirrors.

I then came to a decision. I wanted more. A diverse faculty should be accompanied by a more diverse audience. With that thought came the decision for concrete action along with the realization that I should be willing to put my money where my mouth was. So my contest was born.

I launched the scholarship, full tuition for a diverse attendee. Entry was simple, people had to write a few paragraphs about why they needed to attend, what they thought the benefit would be to their career. And they needed to explain what made them diverse in their own words.

That second requirement actually caused one problem. I had one white author try to explain that the definition of diversity was “fluid” and that she should be included because of the characters she wrote. I had to disqualify her and tell her sorry, but I was really looking for #ownvoices, diverse authors or illustrators who write these characters from a position of knowledge.

Contrary to the title, people came. I had entries from all over the US. Literally, from Washington, D C to Hawaii. Most described themselves as people of color, mixed race, and LGBT.  More importantly, another author of color and SCBWI member, Urania Smith, gets a special shout out. She offered to join me and pay for the tuition of a second candidate.  In the end, I could not chose only two. So I opened my purse a little wider and funded two attended, and Urania a third.

My career has been good, even if  SCBWI only recognizes one of my books as being PAL-worthy.  Per the official SCBWI website – P.A.L. stands for “Published and Listed.” This level of membership is open to those whose “books, articles, poems, stories, illustrations, photographs, films, television or electronic media for children have been commercially published by one of the organizations listed in the SCBWI Market Surveys.”

In other words, traditional publishing serves as the gatekeeper for entry into PAL. But that’s another story about the difficulty minority authors and illustrators have in finding a home with one of those favored publishers and how that effects their status in the organization.

Or maybe it’s really part of the same story.

Almost none of the people who entered were members of SCBWI. In fact, most were not aware that the organization even existed. While I heard about it years ago, and even joined (I am a natural joiner) I know many writers of color do not know and cannot afford to join even if they do know. And, as a member, I know there are times when I question my place in the group as a minority author. Like many others, I write stories that kids of color buy and love. But those books are unable to rouse much interest among major publishers and are shut out of some of the organizations benefits.

Brief disclaimer, my first YA novel, Pull, is a recognized PAL book, having been published by Westside Books, a small press. In addition, I recently sold a MG novel, Courage, that will be published by Harper Collins in 2018. But there are many years between them, years where even with an agent I could not get a publisher interested in my stories featuring black and gay teens. Two of those went on to become successful self-published books. So I have seen both sides of the story. My two self-published books that children of color benefit from, were stories that publishers said they could not relate to the characters. So they are forever neligible for the benefits of PAL status. They get no promotion or even mention in displays at events Illinois SCBWI  attends at school and library associations because they, like some other #ownvoices books, have difficulty getting past the publishing house gatekeepers.

Many authors from marginalized groups are electing to go the independent publishing route in an effort to get their books into kid’s hands. I did that with two books, Minority of One about a gay black youth and Being God whose hero was not only the villain of Pull in search of redemption, but a boy trying to fight the pull of a gang.  I talk about them last year at the Illinois School Library Media Association and the Ohio Educational Library Media Association, and will do so again when I speak to the Illinois Library Association in October. But those have been my solo efforts. SCBWI has never deemed them worthy of even being included in their display at any of these meetings.

This year there will be three new faces at PWID.  I hope to have them speak more about themselves in the next few weeks. Presenting my contest winners:

Jill Jill Kaunfung from Illinois – http://jill-kuanfung.squarespace.com/

Jill describes herself as a mixed-race, queer girl of color. She has drafted a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where a red-cloaked girl of color relies on strength from her ancestors to stand up to the white wolf.

 

khannieKhannie Dastgah from Missouri – http://www.learntoswimstl.com/

Khannie immigrated from Iran in 1979 at the age of four. Her books were created to help diverse groups feel connected to swimming. She wants every kid to be able to connect and relate to at least one of the characters in her books.

Nabeeh_Bilal-photoPicture book author and puppeteer, Nabeeh Bilal from DC – http://callalookids.com

Nabeeh has a self-published series. He stated the hope that being in a “roomful of people who excel at what I aspire to do” would help inspire him to create his best book yet.

In the past he has felt excluded from society as African-American man trying to find a place at “the table.”  One line in his entry form that helped tip the balance in his favor: Diversity is not only about race, but about religion, about autism acceptance, about the right to be who you want to be.

All three will be heading for palatine, Illinois on November 5 for the PWID conference. Their tuition is paid for. Anyone interested can sign up, registration is open and you do not have to be an SCBWI member.  But if you are interested, move fast. Some of the breakout sessions are already full. For more information, and to register, click here

Lots of good people entered my contest. Urania Smith and I were both pleased. My now empty wallet and I hope the conference will be enriched by their presence just as they are enriched by the information they receive and their future careers jump started.  If we really want more diversity in children’s books then we need to do outreach to the many talented #ownvoices who feel shut out.  Just unlocking the doors is not enough. Too many have felt unwanted for their entire careers, and still lack the financial wherewithal to both find out about opportunities and to join. That leaves publishers free to say they can’t find these authors. And that perpetuates the cycle of exclusion.

P. S. Even authors and illustrators who were not selected were provided with information about SCBWI, especially their own state chapters. I hope they feel they got a benefit from applying, even if the answer could not be yes to all.

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