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How books about diverse women are finding a wider audience

"But these women did something they really believed in, and in that changed the world and shifted a little bit of the world’s view of what women could do.”

Kate Schatz was thinking of her 2-year-old daughter, Ivy, when she wrote her first children’s book.

Schatz had noticed that children tended to mention the same people when asked to name women from history and that biographies about women targeted at young readers weren’t diverse.

So she decided to write “Rad American Women A-Z,” the kind of book she wanted her daughter to read. Released in 2014, the book showcased women from U.S. history who stood for radical, progressive social change like architect Maya Lin and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It became a New York Times bestseller.

Image: Rad Women A-Z
"Rad Women A-Z" by Kate SchatzCourtesy of City Lights/Sister Spit

“There wasn’t much out there, so I decided to make it,” Schatz said. “I thought about what I would’ve wanted to read as a kid.”

Schatz’s book is one of a growing trend of diverse books for younger readers.

A 2018 survey by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that out of the 3,703 children’s books they received, 778 were written by people of color and 1,014 were about people of color.

Kathleen T. Horning, director of the center, has been tracking these statistics since 1985 and said that in the last two years, there have been “small, but steady gains” — about 5 percent — in both African-American and Latino books. There has been a small decrease in books by and about Native Americans.

Statistics for Asian and Asian-American books were "distinctive," she added.

"While there are actually more books each year being published by Asian authors and illustrators, the percentage of these books that are about Asian characters is actually decreasing each year," Horning said. "So the long and short: Asian and Asian-American book creators are producing more books each year. They just aren’t necessarily writing about Asian characters.”

“This year for the first time, we are seeing an increase in the number of books about African-Americans and Latinos that are actually being created by authors and illustrators from those two groups,” Horning said. “Publishers are clearly responding to the public demand for more diversity in books for children and teens.”

That rise is fueled in part by publishers like Lee & Low Books, which aims to provide multicultural content for young readers.

Image: The Story of Anna May Wong
"The Story of Anna May Wong" by Paula YooCourtesy Lee & Low Books

Founded by Tom Low and Phillip Lee in 1991, Lee & Low's first published book was 1993’s “Baseball Saved Us” — written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee — about a group of Japanese Americans who build a baseball field inside a World War II incarceration camp. Some of the company’s recent titles include “The Storyteller's Candle” and “The Story of Anna May Wong,” which details the life of the Hollywood starlet.

Hannah Ehrlich, director of marketing and publicity of Lee & Low Books, said that while the company used to just focus on racial diversity, they now aim to include LGBTQ stories and characters with disabilities. She added that she feels like a lot of diverse biography books geared toward young people that already exist are pigeonholed to cover certain topics.

“A lot of them have also been about men, so I think expanding that helps our whole industry tell the kind of stories that we can tell and helps authors be motivated to dig out those stories that are historically hidden, of these amazing women who never got their due,” Ehrlich said.

Image: Rad Women Worldwide
"Rad Women Worldwide" by Kate SchatzCourtesy of Ten Speed Press

Major publishers like Penguin Random House — which published Schatz’s “Rad Women Worldwide” on its Ten Speed Press imprint — have also been pushing for more inclusive children’s books. Kaitlin Ketchum, associate editorial director for Ten Speed Press, edited the “Women in Science” and “Women in Sports” books by Rachel Ignotofsky and Blair Imani’s “Modern HERstory.

She said she feels like the public is beginning to understand that the way history has been taught was incomplete and that many women, as well as queer and disabled people and people of color, have been left out.

“As someone with influence on what kinds of books are being published in the illustrated nonfiction space, I see it as my responsibility to do what I can to uplift and offer a platform to the voices and stories of historically underrepresented people,” Ketchum said.

“Books that help us see that these people have always been part of the story is exciting and gives people —especially young people — a broader understanding of how people like them have shaped the past, and how they can help shape the future,” she added.

In “Rad American Women A-Z” and its sequel, “Rad Women Worldwide,” Schatz wrote about Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai, and Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama, among others. Schatz met with Kochiyama’s daughters and granddaughters, she said, to make sure her section was as accurate as possible.

Image: Rad Women A-Z
Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama featured in Schatz's "Rad Women A-Z"Miriam Klein Stahl

“She didn’t just represent the Asian-American movement, but she worked with Puerto Rican communities and the Black Panthers and did a lot of cross-racial organizing and coalition building,” Schatz said of Kochiyama. “I think because of that, some people didn’t know where to place her, and not a lot of people have paid attention to the work she did, but her experience being incarcerated with other Japanese Americans gave her a fierce sense of wanting justice and liberation for all people.”

Schatz said the fact that there aren’t too many single subject books on women of color for young readers surprises her, but she hopes the continued demand leads to more.

Ann Shen — author and illustrator of “Bad Girls Throughout History,” which featured illustrations and the history of 100 women — said that while her debut book was geared for adults, younger readers were also drawn to it.

Image: Bad Girls Throughout History
An illustration of Ada Lovelace in "Bad Girls Throughout History"Ann Shen

Shen was inspired to create the book when she went to art school and struggled to find herself in what she called a “largely masculine art world.” As part of her publishing class, she created a 12-page zine, which eventually turned into her book.

Similar to Schatz, she noted that young adults tend to be drawn to content that isn’t sugarcoated. Shen wanted the book to include women who were the “first” to do something in their field. Her book, which also includes Anna May Wong, features various women from around the world — such as Marie Curie and Empress Wu Zeitan, the first female emperor of China, as well as contemporary women such as Oprah Winfrey and Tina Fey. The idea for the project came after Shen read about Ada Lovelace.

“I was shocked to find out that the first computer programmer was a woman and not just the first female one,” Shen said, referring to Lovelace. “She had this crazy, salacious personal life, and it was super inspiring to me."

Image: Bad Girls Throughout History
An illustration of Empress Wu Zeitan in "Bad Girls Throughout History"Ann Shen

“I didn’t want it to just be about being a sacrificial heroine, or a perfect women,” she added. “There were a lot of women who were not perfect. ... But these women did something they really believed in, and in that changed the world and shifted a little bit of the world’s view of what women could do.”

She said it wasn’t until recently that she started to notice a trend in books about women, but is glad to be seeing the shift.

“For me, growing up in Los Angeles and seeing all types of different women was the norm, but not seeing all types of women on television or in books was a really big dissociation,” Shen said. “With my work, I wanted to show all the types of different women of different classes and ethnicities so it feels normal and reflective of our world, and so children and young adults — and even adults — can see themselves in these stories that make up our world.”

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