Are Publishers paying attention to African-American teens

More (and Better) Books for Black Teens

by Felicia Pride and Calvin Reid — Publishers Weekly, 12/8/2008

Talk to a YA editor or take a stroll through that section at your local bookstore and it’s evident that there’s a growing number of books aimed at the young adult market—and those numbers include more titles geared specifically to African-American teens. As publishers are addressing the lack of material aimed at this market—many African-American teens have turned to popular adult authors because of this dearth—there has clearly been some improvement.

These days publishers are offering black teens books that deal with serious issues, such as drug addiction and pregnancy, as well as pure entertainment; they’re looking to introduce new authors and experiment with graphic novels and even historical fiction for teens, all while looking for creative ways to make sure parents, teachers and librarians—as well as the kids themselves—know what’s on their lists specifically for black teens.

Publishers Weekly talked with a number of editors and category buyers as well as an agent specializing in titles for African-American teens in order to get a better view of the past, present and future of titles aimed at black teenagers.

There is also a selected listing of adult and children’s African American titles online.

Supply Versus Demand
Although black teens read plenty of books that feature no prominent black characters—Stephenie Meyer’s titles, for example—the emergence of more young adult publishing programs geared toward African-Americans is in many ways a response to demand. Most editors contacted by PW agree that the publishing industry is starting to understand that black teens not only want to read about themselves but are also an economically viable readership. “The aha! moment is unfolding slowly,” says Andrea Pinkney, v-p and executive editor at Scholastic, “but it is happening.” “I didn’t see enough books out there for the constituency that I was teaching,” says Stacey Barney, a former educator and now an editor at Penguin. Barney acquired the first titles in Kensington Publishing’s Drama High series during her tenure at the publishing house. “When I would ask my male students why they weren’t reading,” she adds, “they would reply they didn’t see anything worth reading.” This need for more relatable titles aimed at African-American teenagers is also being spurred by parents, according to Cheryl Hudson, cofounder of Just Us Books, an African-American house focused on children’s titles that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It was feedback from parents that motivated the publisher to start releasing young adult titles in addition to the picture books it is known for. “It’s important that young people have books to read that resonate and are age-appropriate,” says Selena James, who helped to launch Pocket Books’ YA African-American program in 2006 before landing her current job as executive editor at Kensington’s Dafina imprint. “So many young people are reading [adult authors] like Zane and Eric Jerome Dickey. We need to provide young people with stories that are toned down but still resemble them and their experiences.”

What’s Available

Hands down, Walter Dean Myers continues to be a leading author in the YA market. Edited by Pinkney at Scholastic, the prolific author is published by a number of houses. One of his most recent books, Sunrise over Fallujah, about an African-American young male who goes to fight in Iraq, was a 2008 PW Best Book of the Year.

“Most of Walter Dean Myers’s books are on school reading lists, so he’s a given in our stores,” says Sandra Wilson, kids’ and teen buyer at Books-a-Million. But while there are some major African-American young adult authors, like Myers, Sharon Draper and Sharon Flake, most publishing professionals agree that there’s still a need for new, diverse and sometimes even younger voices.

Hudson believes that publishers must honestly engage young adult readers, who often are more knowledgeable and more interested in adult writers, if they expect to attract and hold them. Just Us Books recently released 12 Brown Boys, the first foray into YA literature by commercial fiction author Omar Tyree, generally considered a pioneer in the street fiction genre.

Launched as an African-American teen imprint at BET Books before being acquired by Harlequin in 2005, Kimani Tru was just what the romance publisher was looking for, according to editor Evette Porter. “The YA category was booming, Harlequin was looking to get into it and we started to look for multicultural titles,” Porter says. “But what we saw were black kids reading street lit.” She says the challenge for teen imprints like Kimani Tru is to offer young readers a “bridge”—quality titles that address “the mature stuff that kids today have to deal with. Books that are realistic but offer reasonable answers to serious issues.”

The house offers a mix of stand-alone titles and series, which serve to bring readers back for more.

Inspirational Titles and more:


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