It was my first Sam's Club roadshow, and just moments earlier, the older black woman had read all three of my books cover to cover. I haven't done a big data analytic study on my demographics and sales, but still I thought there was a good chance she might purchase one. After all, I am a black woman who writes stories featuring children of color living on an island. And there I was, on an island selling said books (or so I thought). To a woman of color. Sure, in my stories the children are multi-racial. That is a deliberate mirror of my own family where all the children are multiracial. Their ethnic background has not been explicitly stated (these are picture books after all) but I want to show little brown kids having some whimsical adventures in a non-traditional setting. My book jackets even explain that these are based on true experiences that my children have had (and that I feel are universal).
I replied honestly to her question:
1) These are the first in a whole series of books, the arc is not complete and all characters have yet to be introduced.
2) I have never stated or implied that the children were living in a single-parent home, it just so happens that the mother is there to handle these initial adventures.
3) Since these were in fact based on our family I could tell her where the father (my husband) was during each of these occurrences. Short story shorter, he was not in frame.
She was undaunted and declined to purchase any books. She made it clear that in order to give these to her grandchildren she would need to see a strong black father figure. I thanked her for her time and asked her to keep me in mind.
Afterwards, the whole encounter made me think, and it made me angry.
My initial, flippant, and internal response was that yes, I am aware of the issues surrounding black fathers and black families, but my books are not that deep. They are picture books for early readers. If anything, I think they are a welcome addition to the field of early childhood literature that is *ahem* less than brimming with children of color, especially those who are not living in the inner city or the U.S. deep south.
I also thought about the social responsibility that I might have, and those that might be unique to a woman of color writing about children and families of color. This is what I determined:
1) As an artist, first and foremost, I cannot and will not be everything to every audience. My books, in addition to lacking fathers at this point in the arc, also do not include issues of sexuality, socio-economics, feminism, body image....the list goes on. Yes, there are picture books that do, but mine don't. Does that mean that anyone who is passionate about these issues cannot enjoy them? I don't think so. It also doesn't mean I have to include those issues if they don't fit with my vision of the series.
2) Even if I had included the father, this customer would still have been disappointed, I fear. My husband is Chinese. The father would not be the strong black role model that she pointed out was missing. Maybe that would have been just another reason for her not to buy them. See point #1, sentence 1.
I believe my job is to stay true to myself, my art and my vision for that art. I am not trying to be a spokesperson for black family - or any other - issues. Besides being outside the scope of this series, here are so many facets, I could not possibly do them all justice. I am an independent, self-published author who works hard everyday to get the word out about these books. I don't have an agent or publicist hiring a different writer to spin my work in any which way or make me appear to be all things to all people.
What I am doing is trying to produce lovely books with lovely characters of color having fun doing what kids do. Books that I want to read to my children. I have seen so many books (about people of color or not) with one parent, two parents or no parents featured, and it was never an issue that determined whether I would buy them or pass. I look for a good story and beautiful pictures, and that is what I think I have to offer.
I am thankful for her question, because it proved to be more valuable to me than any purchase she could have made.