Friday, August 6, 2010

Letter to Borders

This letter was originally posted at my blog, Reading in Color

To Whom It May Concern,

I am a regular customer at Borders. As a teenager I don’t have as much money as I would like to spend on books, but I’m there at least once a month and I always buy something because I love books. My experience at Borders has been mostly positive. The sales people are very friendly and the overall atmosphere is very welcoming. My only negative experience is the lack of diversity on the bookshelves. Specifically, I would like to address the lack of diversity in the Young Adult section.

I recently noticed that Borders had expanded its YA section. This excited me because I knew it meant Borders would be able to offer more books. Unfortunately, the books offered were not what I was looking for. I’m looking for books written about people who look like me or differ from the white norm that I see on TV and in magazines. I’m tired of wandering the bookshelves of the YA section and only seeing a handful of titles with brown faces on the cover. I started my blog, Reading in Color, in order to find more titles by and about People of Color (PoC) as well as to promote them. I knew that I couldn’t possibly be the only teenager of color looking for books that were about teenagers like me and not about white people.

Borders has provided me with some great books; Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, It Chicks by Tia Williams, Hotlanta by Denene Millner and Mitzi Miller and many others. These are all books that I really enjoyed (Bleeding Violet is now one of my favorite books). However, Borders lack of diversity in its books also forced me to look for certain books elsewhere, namely; Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins, Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, We Were Here by Matt De La Pena and Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. To be fair, I was able to order a copy of Silver Phoenix while I was searching for it in Borders, but I was immensely disappointed that it wasn’t on the shelf.Admittedly, Borders does a decent job of showcasing titles by and about African Americans, but other minorities are barely represented. As a half Black, half Latina teenager, this saddens me. It’s hard enough for me to find a large number of books with a Black main character. It’s harder still to find a book with a Latina main character. Why? Before I started blogging, I assumed the books simply weren’t being written, thus Borders obviously couldn’t stock them. I’ve since learned otherwise. Through my blog, I’ve received countless recommendations of titles of books by/about Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. The books are being written. Yet if I was to rely solely on Borders, I would never know this. I would continue to only see books with white faces on the cover, being written by white authors. Without my blog and Internet book browsing, I might have never discovered the enticing world of Xia (Silver Phoenix), how hard life is for Sikhs post 9/11 (Shine, Coconut Moon), met the most interesting teenage criminals who are so much more than criminals (We Were Here) or learned about what life was like in India in the 1970s (Secret Keeper). These books have all taught me something, some lessons bigger than others, but all important in their own way. In addition to teaching me something, they have entertained me immensely and some have even brought me to tears. These are all books I couldn’t find at Borders and it pains me to think of all the people who might be missing out on such wonderful stories.

I presume that since you work at Borders, you love books. Let me remind you of why people love books; books transport us to new places and experiences and (this is especially true for teenagers) they show us that we are not alone. Books can also promote tolerance. Why would you deny the joy of opening up a new book and discovering a new world to any child? Why are you permitting a generation of children to grow up knowing very little about cultures that are not white or American? Let me be clear, there are certain experiences in life that are universal (parenting struggles, peer pressure, falling in love) and it doesn’t really matter what the cultural background of the main character is. There are also certain experiences in life that not everyone will have to go through (racism and prejudice being the most obvious, although at some point, most people will experience prejudice of some kind). However what message are you sending by only selling stories about white teens? Borders may not realize this, but the reason many children of color do not read is because they feel that the books being written by white people, about white people, are not for them. They do not believe they can relate. Or worse yet, they begin to accept the subtle message sent by rows upon rows of books with white faces on the cover; YOU ARE WORTHLESS, NOT WORTH WRITING ABOUT OR SHOWING ON A COVER, YOU ARE ALONE. In short: YOU ARE INFERIOR. I’m sure I’m not the only one when I say that I don’t want to spend my money at a store that doesn’t value or respect me or my needs.

Case in point is Silver Phoenix. I was horrified when I discovered that the beautiful cover of Silver Phoenix was being changed. I’m aware that covers are sometimes changed for the paperback editions, but in Silver Phoenix, the change is drastic. It goes from having a Chinese girl on the cover, to having a racially ambiguous girl on the cover. The most obvious way of determining if the girl on the cover is Asian (by looking at the eyes) is covered up. Borders may take the position that it’s the publisher’s fault, not Borders. That would be convenient but wrong. The publishers are wrong for removing the Asian main character from the cover and replacing it with a girl who is racially ambiguous at best, whitewashing at worst. BUT the publishers (Greenwillow Books) are sticking with the author, they want to see her book reach a wider audience. In a way, they were forced to make this awful cover change because of Borders. You refused to even stock Silver Phoenix, based on the cover alone. Borders prevented thousands of readers from reading a book about someone who is different from them, and yet the same. Borders prevented Asian readers from seeing a strong and determined Asian girl on the cover of a book. As pointed out by blogger Ah Yuan at Gal Novelty, you wouldn’t refuse to sell a book based on the cover alone if there was a white girl on it. Borders wouldn’t blame the low sales on the white model on the cover of the book, but if a book with a PoC on the cover doesn’t sell, it’s because of the brown model on the cover.

I realize that Borders is a business, therefore it’s all about the money. Did you know that studies have shown that Latinos are the biggest minority consumers? If this is the case, why are Latinos not being aggressively pursued by large chain bookstores? If Borders invested a little more money in buying books that are by/about Latinos, they could tap into a huge market. It’s not enough to have a tiny section entitled ‘Hispanic Studies’, we need more bilingual books for young children and books with Latino/a teenage main characters. It’s not Latino buying power that is expanding, all minority consumer power is growing. I understand not always wanting to take a chance on debut authors and I can even understand why you would only display certain books in certain stores. But Borders doesn’t even have that. As a start, try featuring more books for people of all ages (but especially middle school and teenage readers) by/about African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in stores where there is a large ethnic majority of that particular culture. Mind you, that’s only a start. The end goal is to have multicultural bookshelves. Why is it that the only book I can find in the YA section with a Native American main character is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie? It’s a fabulous book, but there are more books about Native American teenagers out there than just that ONE book. If you need suggestions, do a little research. Check out blogs like Color Online, Multiculturalism Rocks!, theHappyNappyBookseller, Gal Novelty, Voracious YAppetite , Asia In the Heart, World On the Mind and the blogrolls at these blogs for suggestions of more titles. Don’t buy into the myth that minorities don’t read and won’t spend money on books. Maybe, just maybe, we “don’t read” because we are tired of being told that we don’t matter. Maybe, just maybe, once we see more brown faces on bookshelves and realize that we are respected customers, we will want to spend our money on books.

You can ignore this as the rant of a young and perhaps in your opinion, misinformed teenager. That is your prerogative but bear this in mind, I have given this a lot of thought and talked to many teenagers of color as well as blogged about it. I have found an overwhelming number share my opinion and would love to spend more or in some cases, some money at Borders on books that are written by people of color, for people of color, specifically teenagers of color.

Postscript to blog readers: This is the actual letter I'm sending to Borders. To learn more about writing your own letter, check out my post here please also leave links to your own letter in the comments at that post.


LM Preston said...

I read this on your blog. Hum, maybe following up with a call and sending a letter to each store manager. Store managers do have the freedom sometimes to purchase requested books. Thanks for following through on this and using that awesome voice you have to achieve change. :-D

Color Online said...

Ari, you are fierce! Thank Maude for you.