Thursday, August 21, 2008

What Book Publishers Can Learn From Disney

In his article Generation Mix: Youth TV Takes the Lead in Diversity Casting, Edward Wyatt of the New York Times points out the difference between television for adults and television for kids when it comes to race and ethnicity:
“One-third of the U.S. population is now nonwhite,” said Ms. Chase, one of a handful of prominent African-American producers in Hollywood. “That is reflected in the Disney Channel projects because they are committed to diversity. It has been a priority for them all along.”

None of which should be particularly surprising in the 21st century, except that television in general seems to be caught in one of a series of repeating cycles in which diversity all but disappears from the small screen.

Consider, as a contrast, what the red carpet will look like at next month’s Primetime Emmy awards ceremony. Of the 26 men nominated for Emmys for lead or supporting actor in a drama, comedy or mini-series, all are white, most of Anglo-Saxon descent.
Casting aside, I'm wondering who is penning the stories for Disney. Did they seek any desi input when writing the newest Cheetah girls made-for-television flick, ONE WORLD, for example? (They didn't come knocking at the Fire Escape, and believe me, I was ready.) But I'm not going to get crotchety about this. I'm THRILLED that a movie set in India is on the Disney agenda -- it premiers tomorrow -- and that the company really seems to understand the changing realities of race and ethnicity in their market of kids and teens.



Unfortunately, in the book publishing industry, it seems like adults are leading the way when it comes to including an easy mix of characters in story. Monsoon Summer (Random House), my novel that has sold the best of all my books, was repeatedly rejected by publishers for years, some of whom said that American teens wouldn't want to read a book set in India. My agent finally placed the book after the adult reading population began gobbling up Jhumpa Lahiri's stories. "The market's ready for it now," we heard from booksellers.

Disney, which hasn't been known as a "multicultural" brand by any stretch of the imagination, has made a smart, profit-driven move to reflect the changing reality of race in the next generation. Here's my question -- is there a particular publisher of books for children and teens who seems to be leading the way in our industry? And if not, why not?

4 comments:

Pooja said...

Are you really thrilled, Didi? All I see here is "Ohhhh, exotic!" and "Ohhhh, colorful!" and South Asian (a Bollywood-ized, saccharin-ized version) culture being packaged for easy consumption. How is this *any* different from anything we've seen in the past few years?

I think Disney has made a smart, profit-driven move to reflect what's selling in the marketplace. (Elephants, lenghas, bhangra, oh my!)

Sorry to be the crotchety one here - Monsoon Summer was thrilling; this is "meh" at best.

Mitali Perkins said...

Yes, I am thrilled that Disney has come this far from the India of the Jungle Book. It's not as far as we might like, but it's movement.

Besides, everything is hyper-sweet and packaged neatly in the Mouse world, so why should this movie be any different? That's their brand -- squeaky, tween clean, and easy to consume. Nothing wrong with that.

I'll reserve my final judgment after I watch tomorrow, though, and take your words of caution into account.

Sunila Samuel said...

Indian culture is so highly misunderstood in the U.S. that I'll take any depiction so long as it doesn't solely revolve around a) being a doctor, b) being a taxi driver, or c) being a 7-eleven owner or gas station owner. Not that there's anything wrong with these professions, of course, but the perception and understanding of Indians has to transform and expand a bit. Unfortunately, we may be stuck with the Bollywood/exotic/colorful depiction for a while....

Little Willow said...

Interested in hearing your thoughts on the film. I saw it as well.