Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Why we can’t talk about diversity in kidlit without talking about money

There’s a lot of talk in kidlit about the need for more diversity, and often we struggle to talk about this problem in a way that feels productive or helpful. One possible way of thinking about this issue is through the structural lens of financial access to the industry. “Making it” in kidlit certainly requires hard work and talent. It also requires time and money: how many thousands of unpaid hours have you spent creating your portfolio and book dummies? How many thousands of dollars have you spent trying to get your work in front of the right people? Money dictates our ability and capacity to make connections, or even have the time to make books to begin with.

For this blog post I contacted over 100 creators (some have multiple books, others don’t) and asked them about how they make ends meet. Many people I asked didn’t respond (for many reasons, I’m sure). A few people who weren’t quoted in this blog post mentioned that they’re able to do kidlit full-time because they’re independently wealthy. And that’s fine, it’s actually great to contribute your time and energy towards making a positive impact on your communities and to the field at large. But I’m wondering what would happen if we were to collectively shine a light on these issues of access and think about the impact it has on diversity in our field. If money is critical to success in kidlit, who can’t afford it and who can’t? Perhaps kidlit being a cost-prohibitive industry to begin with is one of the contributing factors to the lack of diverse books and diverse creators.

In a lot of ways, money governs our identity as kidlit creators. Simply saying that you want to be an illustrator, or an author-illustrator when you haven’t published anything can be an intimidating identity to claim out loud. You have to justify your your economic value to people like your parents, family, partner’s family, etc., without having any evidence that you can be financially valuable.

I’ve barely ever made money off of art. I’ve probably worked over twenty part-time, full-time, and temporary jobs mostly without benefits, from a minimum wage part-time job at a bookstore, to signing packages at an organ bank, to being an art janitor (informal title), to working at the Free Library of Philadelphia. In some of those jobs I’ve felt like I needed to hide the fact that I was an artist because I was worried that my bosses might think I wasn’t fully invested in my day job. In other jobs, like the one I have now with the National Writing Project, I’m open about what I do and am supported by colleagues. With the security of a steady paycheck and health insurance, my hustle is now primarily focused around how I manage my time: at my most productive I work all day, come home, and work all night. I justified my art practice before I made money off of it by working really, really hard.

Sarah Jacoby (Forever or a Day, Chronicle Books, 2018) was saddled with student loans upon graduating with an MFA from the Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art. She moved to Brooklyn and started a full-time job during the day at an app company, doing editorial and book illustration work at night and on weekends. “That was very difficult,” she says, “I know people who enjoy this kind of lifestyle, but for me it was draining and, frankly, depressing. I certainly didn't thrive in that situation. I can't imagine sustaining that.” Making books is an unreliable source of income, which can be challenging if you’re barely scraping by to begin with, and are in debt. “It can take years to build a portfolio, get an agent, and then finally sell a manuscript or idea. And then, even at that point, it can take a long time for contracts to clear and for advances to arrive. I cannot imagine making my career work without the support of my husband, Timothy. We both have income at this point, but his is regular and that is crucial.”

Other people in kidlit do various things to make ends meet. Cindy Derby (How to Walk an Ant, Roaring Brook, Winter 2019) takes on commissions, paints pet portraits, sells limited edition fine art prints in her online shop, and teaches kid art classes two days a week. Jeslyn Kate sells illustrations of homes for presents and real estate listings. Ana Aranda (The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2017) teaches illustration classes at the Academy of Art University, takes commissions for pieces, makes original art for shows, creates murals and sometimes works for greeting card companies. She recommends “having several sources of income that can also translate into different professional opportunities for growth and exploring new mediums.” Jen Betton (Hedgehog Needs a Hug, Penguin, Summer 2018) was an adjunct professor for art/animation students. Debbie Ohi (Where Are My Books?, Simon & Schuster, 2015; Sam and Eva, Simon & Schuster, 2017, and more) supplements her income primarily from skype visits to schools. Tracy Subisak (Cy Makes A Friend, Boyds Mills, 2017), Shawn Loves Sharks (Roaring Brook, 2017), and Grizzly Boy (Sasquatch, 2018) does freelance illustration-storyboarding and design work. “Doing this gives me the freedom to make time for kidlit work, but I’m often working on freelance projects in tandem,” she says. She has to maintain a schedule and process-oriented approach to all her work, otherwise she'd “be a pile of sludge on the floor.” What do all of these people have in common? They piece together many forms of work outside of the writing and drawing stories they’re trying to sell. They hustle outside of the time they spend making books. That takes a lot of time.

Before I signed with Erica Rand Silverman at Stimola Literary Studio, I saw her speak at SCBWI LA 2016. The way she talked about the economic realities of trying to “make it” in kidlit resonated with me, surfacing the economic realities that come with being someone who’s trying to make a career in kidlit. Her advice: don’t quit your day job. “Keeping your day job or other primary source of income when you start out gives you freedom - freedom to choose projects that really speak to you, freedom to take your time, freedom to explore, all without the stress of bills piling up. As you begin to get work, you may be able to scale back on your hours, or move in to consulting or freelancing while still keeping one foot in the door. Ideally, eventually you'll find that projects have lined up and on signing, D&A, and on pub monies are laid out for years in advance. Then, of course, the hope is that those books will begin to see royalties.” She added, “I realize this can be easier said than done. It can be a long road for some and a short road for others. Either way, it’s always a balancing act.”

This isn’t the way it is everywhere. In other countries, artists have an easier time being artists, for various reasons. When I was doing an artist residency in Iceland last year, I talked with Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, about what it was like to have a creative practice there versus the US (culturally and economically). The definition of being an artist in Iceland has a lot more latitude: Bjargey’s CV includes environmental painting, performance, film, and drawing. Icelandic artists and writers are eligible to apply for government funding; it’s enough where you can get by with a few jobs here and there (she’s spending a few months this winter as a park ranger in a lighthouse on the southern coast, for example). And health insurance for you and your family is covered by the government, not through your job. The economic support the government provides, it seems, has a cultural impact: you can afford to exist as an artist, if you’re willing to put in the work.

There are opportunities to get funding that can offset the time spent working on a manuscript. SCBWI offers various scholarships and awards you can apply for, including the annual Don Freeman grant which offers a $1,000 grant to a published illustrator for a work-in-progress; the Work-In-Progress grant; the Emerging Voices award, and the Multicultural Work-In-Progress grant (though it’s hard to figure out if these are different on the website). Many local SCBWI chapters also offer local scholarships to attend SCBWI conferences (an example is the Kansas/Missouri chapter and New England, from a quick google search). There are also excellent opportunities like the We Need Diverse Books mentorship program, and Lee and Low’s New Voices Award.

When I tell people I write and draw picture books, the person usually tells me enthusiastically that they have an idea for a book. I think this is great, and I always tell them that they should write it. Then the conversation quickly turns to their questions about the industry, how they don’t have time, etc. I think this says a lot about how, culturally, we think about picture books as intertwined with money and how little free time we have to be creative. If you think about books then immediately think about how to make a career out of them, you’re missing out on all of the fun and joy of writing just for the sake of writing.

There’s a study by Heather Stuckey at Penn State and Jeremy Nobel at Harvard Medical School about the connection between art, healing, and public health. The researchers, who looked at music engagement, visual arts, movement-based creative expression, and expressive writing found, “positive outcomes for the potential of using art to promote healing.” What would our society would look if we encouraged all people to cultivate a creative outlet, for its own health benefit? In the US, the people who can participate most in the forms of expression outlined in the study by Stuckey and Nobel are the ones who have the economic freedom to do so: children, seniors, and adults who either have money (financial privilege) or are scrappy enough to make it happen (piece together multiple jobs, rely on their partners). At any SCBWI conference you’ll meet a lot of talented people who have a lot of hustle. You’ll also meet a lot of people who, talent aside, are economically poised to succeed. You will also notice that the attendance is mostly white women, which seems to reflect CCBC statistics (in 2015 there were about 12.5% of books published that were written or illustrated by people of color).

One way we can talk about diversity as we all struggle, hustle, and pay a lot of money to get noticed by editors and agents, is to remember why diversity is a good thing. Chris Jackson, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the One World imprint at Random House described it masterfully in a piece he wrote for Literary Hub called “Diversity in Publishing” Doesn’t Exist—But Here’s How it Can:
"When we expand the range of the industry’s gatekeepers, we expand the range of our storytelling, which expands our ability to see each other, to talk and listen to each other, and to understand each other. It allows more people to see themselves represented in literature; and it allows the rest of us to listen in, to understand our neighbors and fellow citizens, their lives and concerns, their grievances and their beauty, their stories and ideas, their language. The empathic bridges this creates between us is one of the essential functions of literature in a democracy. But it can only happen if we widen the gates of literature and diversify the gatekeepers."
If we, as a society, had the economic structure to support health insurance for everyone, or a universal basic income so people wouldn’t have to work multiple jobs to make rent or pay off loans and could put energy towards writing and drawing, perhaps we’d see a more economically and racially diverse attendance. And perhaps our bookshelves in stores and in libraries would be more representative of the diverse country we live in.

K-Fai Steele is a writer and drawer based in San Francisco. She’s publishing A Normal Pig with Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in Summer 2019, and Noodlephant, written by Jacob Kramer, with Enchanted Lion in 2018. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Read her Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast interview, or watch a filmed interview with her on Hello, Studio!


  1. I don't think this has anything to do with universal health insurance (there were state programs to help with this anyways) or a universal basic income because economics shows that raising the minimum wage puts businesses out of business, but really the fact that the business society isn't forced to pay decent wages for art! When there are illustrators from other countries offering illustrations for $5 on Fiverr and people try to undercut everyone with their prices, of course the average is going to be low. I definitely think there needs to be much more ethnic diversity and more children with disabilities in our stories and illustrations. But I have met so many illustrators of different backgrounds and ethnicities that I don't see that as a problem. I just see that most of us aren't paid for the years of experience and education, and constant new education required, to make a decent living... and of course especially when you live in a place like San Francisco or New York City.

    1. Thanks Bethany for reading this and your thoughtful reply. I completely agree (and didn't cover in the article) the further frustration with undercutting, and the expectation that folks might be expected to do work on spec or for "exposure." As the publisher Daniel Nayeri just tweeted so eloquently to someone asking how they can get a foot in the door to making books: "you're entering a luxury sport for rich people... you don't need a masters degree"

      Also, re: diversity of creators and of people who work in publishing, take a look at the data and research from the Cooperative Children's Book Center that I link to in the article, or this Lee and Low baseline survey from 2015 about the lack of diversity amongst staff in the publishing industry The data from these two studies alone shows a startling lack of diversity in kidlit in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. So although you might personally have experienced a diverse community, that isn't the case nationally.

  2. Hi K-Fai, it was so helpful. Thank you.

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  4. I resonate with your article so much, K-Fai. Thank you for writing this. I have been thinking a lot about making a living as an author/illustrator. As many artists who are trying to make it, I hustled with several jobs at once all the time for years. And as a lot of published authors know, it certainly doesn't end with finally landing a debut book contract. I am so glad you are putting this into words so clearly.

  5. Thank you for your honest take on this frustrating truth. And interesting timing -- I'm currently at an SCBWI regional retreat where Erica is speaking. I wish you (and every creative hustler) continued grit and success, and perhaps, one day, a change in how things are. Cheers! :)