Do black children’s lives matter if nobody writes about them?

The publishing industry’s vastly unrepresentative bookshelf is an act of dishonesty and erasure. Photograph: Chad Johnston/Masterfile/Corbis

Literature’s job is not to protect young people from the ugly world; it is to arm them with a language to describe difficult truths they already know.

“In times of crisis or unrest,” Ferguson municipal public library director Scott Bonner wrote in an email conversation, “everyone, but especially kids, will have questions that tie to identity, empathy, sense of belonging vs exclusion, seeking a role to play, and so forth”. Bonner turned the FMPL into a safe haven during the civil unrest in 2014, earning it a Library of the Year award and international acclaim.

“Books help us know who we are,” he added, “and we must know who we are before we can understand what we must do.”

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Besides teaching us who we are, books are where we learn whose lives matter enough to read about: a recent Florida State University study called children’s literature “a dominant blueprint of shared cultural values, meanings and expectations”. Exclusion from this world, the study says, constitutes a kind of “symbolic annihilation”. As suicide rates among black youth skyrocket, and police officers justify killing unarmed children, the annihilation becomes much more than symbolic.

The ongoing crisis of state-sanctioned violence and antiblackness in America is not a new problem, but sustained protests have forced the world take note of it. And while some individual writers have spoken up, the Young Adult industry has had little to say about what the New York Times called “the most formidable protest movement of the 21st century to date”.

There is a particular need for creators and publishers of young people’s literature to not simply remain silent and on the sidelines because this is a movement largely comprised of and led by young people.

“It has been difficult to find books that speak directly to the issues at hand,” Ferguson librarian Scott Bonner told me. “There are a number of excellent books that key on previous stages and incidents in the history of American civil rights movements, but they largely approach current issues obliquely, either being a celebration of a victory from long ago, or being rather vague in approach.”

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds’ new book, All American Boys (co-written with Brendan Kiely), deals explicitly with police brutality. “We said, ‘Let’s create a book that’s also a tool’,” Reynolds told me in a recent phone interview. “We wanted to talk about invisibility and hypervisibility, prejudice and profiling from the inside out and outside in. It’s kids who are dying in the streets; it’s kids who will make the change.”

Clifton Kinnie is one of those young people: at 17, he became one of the leaders of the Ferguson protest movement after a teacher explained that the system works fine and blamed Michael Brown for his own death. Kinnie walked out. Later, he texted 20 of his friends to come over to protest; 50 showed up and they named their nascent organization Our Destiny. “Many of the young people who took to the streets in Ferguson had no idea that we would help spark the radicalization of a generation,” Kinnie told me. “We had no idea that we would spark a movement that would become national.”

If we are truly listening to the voices of the young people marching through the streets, we must look within the publishing industry and see the anti-blackness embedded in it, without defensiveness or dodging. In 2014, only 5% of the 3,500 children’s books published were about black characters; Christopher Myers has called it “the apartheid of children’s literature”. According to a recent Publishers Weekly survey, 1% of the publishing industry is black.

In a situation that will be familiar to many writers of color, author Dhonielle Clayton recently had a Young Adult book rejected in part because the publishers already had a book with a black character in it. “I’m finding that there’s still a one book per list rule, or a few books per list rule where they fill their quota of diverse content and then that’s it,” Clayton told me. “They’ll say, ‘We already have our Asian book, our black book,’ and that’s that.”

This week, a white illustrator tried to justify her picture book depicting an enslaved girl happily working on a South Carolina plantation. The children’s book community has been on fire with responses (including my own) – and, at the heart of these ongoing struggles around representation is the fundamental question about the role of both literature and the creators of literature in times of crisis.

Equity is a long way off, but the 89% white publishing industry has (finally, grudgingly) began to publicly embrace the importance of diversity; it has acknowledged the very basic truth that we exist. The world is diverse; we need books that tell us the truth about ourselves, and ones that that don’t replicate the facile lies and erasure present in centuries of literature.

Taken as a whole, the vastly unrepresentative bookshelf is an industry-wide act of dishonesty. “We need everyone to get free; we need everyone to play their roles so we can get free,” Ferguson youth activist Clifton Kinnie told me. “So authors, please tell our stories.” As a community, as an industry and as a movement, let’s move beyond the basic truth of diversity. Let’s acknowledge that publishing comes from a history of violence – the violence of erasure, exclusion and demonization that palpably colors where we are today, no matter how many banners are raised or balloons dropped in the name of diversity. Let’s rewrite the DNA of Young Adult literature until it not only better reflects our own, but upholds the fundamental truth that black lives matter.