The lineup of speakers for the Loft Literary Center’s conference on writing for children and young adults was stellar. William Alexander, winner of a National Book Award. Kelly Barnhill, winner of the Newbery Medal. Phyllis Root, author of more than 40 books for children. And 19 others.
Other than Alexander, who is Cuban-American, every writer who agreed to speak was white. And so, just days after announcing it, the Loft in Minneapolis canceled the Oct. 20-21 conference.
“We have set a goal for ourselves to be inclusive and to work toward equity, and we didn’t think the conference would live up to that mission,” Britt Udesen, executive director of the Loft, said Wednesday. “We made a mistake.”
Complaints from the public — Udesen declined to say how many, or who — helped prompt the decision to cancel the Children’s and Young Adult Literature (CYA) Conference. Another factor was dwindling interest in the event, which has been held at least every other year since 2003. Only 13 people had registered for this year’s conference.
The Loft had invited more than 10 writers of color to speak and expected a few “to come through at the last minute, and then they didn’t,” Udesen said. “It’s MEA [teachers’ conference] weekend, so a lot of local writers were unavailable, or a lot of them had just recently taught with us and they thought it would be repetitive.”
One writer who wasn’t invited was Minneapolis writer Shannon Gibney, whose young-adult novel “See No Color” won a Minnesota Book Award last year. She said the issue of diversity is crucial, because children’s literature remains overwhelmingly white. While many Loft conferences are diverse, Gibney said, the children’s literature conference has not been.
“The times I’ve been to that conference it has felt stiflingly white, definitely stiflingly older white woman, stiflingly suburban,” Gibney said. “And because of that it hasn’t been a space where, as a newer writer of color, it is really useful for me.”
The problem is crucial because of the whiteness of children’s literature in general. “It’s an urgent matter that kid-lit needs to respond to,” Gibney said. “There are more white writers saying, ‘I’ll have more protagonists of color,’ but there are certain kinds of representation you can only get if you have experience in it. So the number of black protagonists has gone up, but the numbers of black writers has either stayed the same, or gone down.
“As a black writer, that’s not the kind of progress I’m looking for.”
According to statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, out of 3,200 children’s books published in the United States in 2016, 90 were by black authors, eight were by Native American authors, 194 were by Asian American authors, and 94 were by Latino authors.
“There’s not a significant change from year to year,” said Megan Schliesman, a librarian for the center. “The number that really jumped up is Latino. But not African American and not American Indian/First Nations. Slowly, publishers are making an effort to do more.”
Tickets for the Loft conference went on sale July 26, and the cancellation came less than two weeks later, via Facebook.
The reaction was mixed.
“Thank you for setting and being committed to high standards for the organization,” one person wrote on Facebook. “This is one of the reasons I’m proud to be a member.”
“Anything but courageous, this,” wrote another. “I cannot go on supporting an entity that will bow so readily to a subjective, elitist determination of what is right, just and ‘correct.’ You may go on censoring what should be heard, Loft, but you’ll do so without my modest monetary contributions.”
The response seemed to echo the divided reactions that followed the Walker Art Center’s decision earlier this summer to dismantle the controversial sculpture “Scaffold” after public complaints.
“I think this is an interesting cultural moment,” Gibney said. “It represents a lot of the issues we’re seeing locally and nationally. My son is 7 and most of his peers are kids of color. That’s not weird — that’s the trend. It’s how the state is going, and still children’s literature doesn’t reflect this.”
The Walker controversy did not figure into the Loft’s decision, Udesen said. “ ‘Scaffold’ is certainly a thing we have talked about a lot on our staff,” she said, but in this case “we were thinking specifically about our community,” she said. “It’s really important in this moment in the history of CYA literature to include voices of people of color and marginalized communities. We can’t control who takes our classes. But we can control whose voices we put on stage.”
The conference’s keynote event — a discussion with Barnhill and Anne Ursu, moderated by Alexander — will still go on. And the 13 people who registered to attend, Udesen said, will get free tickets.