Friday, May 14, 2010

May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture a Real Treat

On May 13th, I had the privilege of attending the 2010 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture at the University of California at Riverside Extension Center. Sponsored by the Association of Library Services to Children, the lecture was presented by the Riverside County Library System in collaboration with the University of California – Riverside Libraries. This was the first time the Arbuthnot lecture has been held in the Inland Empire in the lecture’s 35-year history, and only the fourth time it has been in California. While the name May Hill Arbuthnot may not be familiar to most, older Americans will recognize her books, the Dick and Jane readers, which she co-authored with William Scott Gray.

This year’s guest speaker was Kathleen T. (K. T.) Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. The author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, now in its second edition (Harper Collins, 2010), her talk was “Can Children’s Books Save the World?” While Ms. Horning admitted that this lofty title was the idea of the lecture committee and not herself, she did an excellent job rising to the challenge.

Her passion is multicultural literature, and she firmly believes that every child should have access to books. Most writers would agree with her on that one! She discussed the role that minority librarians have played in the field of children’s literature, then lamented the fact that few medal winners are minority writers.

During the question and answer period, one librarian raised the issue of book covers and why minorities are rarely depicted on them. Ms. Horning stated that the publishers believe that multicultural covers that won’t sell in the bookstores, or more correctly, that the bookstores won’t stock multicultural books. She cited the example of Justine Larbalestier’s 2009 novel, Liar, which features a bi-racial main character. Ms. Larbalestier was very upset to discover that the publishers had put a white girl on the cover, and she blogged about her feelings. The publisher changed the cover.

Two young students blogged about another book by this same publisher that had the identical problem, and the cover was changed. Ms. Horning pointed out the power of the Internet and added that things will change with e-books and self-published material.

It would seem that if librarians are clamoring for books by and about minority cultures that the major publishers would heed their desires. They expressed a need for books not about cultures in other countries but other cultures here in the United States. Writers, keep this in mind for books you publish yourselves or through small presses.

At the reception that followed the talk, Ms. Horning signed autographs, and the line was long. Mrs. Nelson’s Book Shop hosted a display of multicultural books and also both hardcover and softcover editions of From Cover to Cover. Of course, I bought a copy and had it autographed.

The site of next year’s talk has yet to be determined, but write yourself a note to check for it. If it’s in your area, you’re in for a treat.