This week we've been exploring the question of diversity in the publishing industry.
From the classrooms of MFA writing programs to the corporate offices of the big Manhattan publishers, NPR's Lynn Neary has reported on why there is an absence of people of color across the industry. Publishers agree that as the country's readers become more diverse, reflecting a diverse readership is increasingly becoming smart business for those who make and sell books.
Earlier this summer, the campaign "We Need Diverse Books" caused a stir when it underscored that fewer than 8 percent of children's books published last year were written by or about people of color. But beyond the industry's gate keepers, we wanted to find out what is happening in local communities, in the shelves and reading circles of neighborhood bookstores.
Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered, talked with Elizabeth Bluemle, the co-owner of the Flying Pig Book Store in Shelburne, Vt.
On what makes a diverse book
The criteria is: One, the book must feature a main character of color in a story that is not driven by racial issues. So mainstream stories of kids having all kinds of adventures and different genres of literature. ...
I think there are so many books published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don't describe the entire experience of human life in this country.
On the notion that "the market reflects the buyer" in the publishing world
I think publishing, marketing dollars go to certain books more than other books. And I think we tend to narrow our definition of what will sell even before the book gets out of the gate. ...
I think that people will assume a book starring an African-American or an Asian-American character is going to be a niche market book and that just isn't the case for most books. Kids love a good story, and that's what hooks them. They identity with the character's internal adventures and struggles and dilemmas... they don't identify primarily with the race of the person on the cover of the book.
On how sometimes it's not the kids who are the biggest obstacles — it's the adults
So sometimes we'll be in the store and we'll see a kid looking at a little stack of books — maybe we've recommended those books to them. They might've chosen a book with a kid on the cover who has a different race than their own. And the parent kind of unconsciously steers the kid away from the book. They'll say, "Oh you're interested in that book? Do you really think you're going to read that one? What about this one?" And the child hasn't been aware of anything different about the book, but the adult is.
On whether or not that "selection" by parents is itself a form of racism
I think it's racism, but I don't think it's conscious at all. I think it's that swimming in the monocultural world that we live in. But that's where the book seller can step in and say, "Oh my gosh, the fourth graders at the local elementary school love this book," and talk about the story and maybe give the adult a chance to kind of reconsider their own hesitation.
On some of her tips for book sellers
I think we need to be better about looking at small presses. From our own buying standpoint, we need to make a special point to let our reps know that we're looking for diverse titles. I also think we need to examine our own assumptions and biases: Are we only handing one kind of book to one kind of customer? And if so, why? We just have to keep reexamining that.
When we book-talk books, focus on the story the way you do any books. I was using historical fiction as an example. If you hand a kid a book and say, "This is historical fiction," a lot of kids' eyes will glaze over, because that sounds boring to them. But if you say, "This is about a kid who was kidnapped out of her home, and she becomes a spy." They're in, they want to read that story. So lead with the story, lead with the dilemma, the adventure — and that's going to hook your readers.
Two hundred years ago this week, during the War of 1812, invading British troops destroyed two of the nation's most important buildings — the White House and the Capitol. The war had started over issues of tariffs and the taking of American sailors on the high seas; by the summer of 1814, British fighters were in middle of a campaign burning and looting along the coast.
Unfortunately, there was no recorded sound from that time, so for help in our storytelling we imagined how NPR might have covered the burning of Washington, D.C., had we been on the scene two centuries ago. This is definitely one of the stories that you'll want to listen to — click the play button above to hear it.
This reenactment of the siege is based on Steve Vogel's book, Through the Perilous Fight: From the Burning of Washington to the Star-Spangled Banner, the Six Weeks That Saved the Nation.
Our cast of characters:
- "War Department" Correspondent Tom Bowman, embedded with the invading British forces
- "President's House" Correspondent Tamara Keith, reporting from the White House under siege
- Congressional Correspondent Ailsa Chang, reporting from the soon-to-be burned U.S. Capitol
- WAMU's Armando Trull, reporting from River Road as the District of Columbia militia regroups
- E.J. Dionne and David Brooks with their regular weekly analysis of the 1814 news
In the year since a major chemical weapons attack in Syria, President Bashar Assad has handed over all of the declared arsenal and the U.S. says it has destroyed the weapons.
However, this has not fundamentally weakened Assad. He remains firmly entrenched in the capital, Damascus, though his army has lost ground to the Islamic State, the extremist group that now holds large parts of the north and the east of the country.
The chemical weapons attack, carried out with sarin gas, took place in the suburbs of Damascus, known as Eastern and Western Ghouta, on Aug. 21 last year and a U.S. investigation found it killed more than 1,400 people. Survivors say the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal is no consolation for the loss of loved ones or the harsh, ongoing military siege by Assad's army.
Majd Al Deek, 26, a photographer and activist, was in the Eastern Ghouta area when he got word that there had been a chemical attack. He and his friends rushed to the affected towns in the sprawling rebel-held suburbs.
"We didn't realize at first that the gas would affect us too," Deek says, adding that he lost seven out of eight of his fellow activists. They died, he says, after handling the toxic bodies and ferrying those with the weakest heartbeats to medical clinics.
Deek photographed the victims body-by-body in repeated, frantic trips to the scene. He calls the event a turning point in Syria's revolt against Assad that began in 2011.
"The air was poison," he says. "When we went to the locations where the bodies were gathered, I couldn't even fit them all in my camera frame."
Syrian Government Blamed
Entire neighborhoods were wiped out, leaving no one to identify the victims who were buried in mass graves. A U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people, including 426 children, were killed. The White House said it assessed with high confidence that the Syrian government was the perpetrator.
Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based group, said the rockets and launchers used "strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces."
Before the attack, President Obama had warned Syria against using chemical weapons.
"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation," the president said.
In the days after the attack, Obama considered airstrikes against Syria, but ultimately decided against it.
His administration has been providing limited, covert training for so-called moderate rebels and the president is now seeking $500 million to step up the assistance. However, Obama has so far refrained from direct U.S. military involvement in a war that's now in it's fourth year and features multiple competing factions.
Bitter Disappointment Among Opposition
Meanwhile, many in the opposition have been bitterly disappointed by the U.S. response to the chemical attack.
"From the beginning of the revolution (in 2011) we heard that chemical weapons were a red line," Deek says. "But they were used. We discovered on the 21st of August 2013 that chemicals are not a red line."
The Syrian government denied responsibility for the attack and blamed the rebels.
However, the government did finally acknowledge its chemical weapons stockpile and agreed to turn all of it over. The United States said this week that the entire declared arsenal, 1,300 tons of chemical agents, had been destroyed. Much of the destruction took place aboard the U.S. military ship Cape Ray in the eastern Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Ghouta, life has only become more difficult for the survivors.
Prior to the attack, the army imposed many restrictions. For example, residents were barred from taking in cameras. But afterward, a full siege was imposed on movement in or out of the area. And many staples, such as bread, flour and medicine were not allowed in, Deek says.
The United Nations ordered a probe that found "the government employs siege warfare, instrumentalizing basic human needs for water, food, shelter and medical care as part of its military strategy."
'Surrender Or Starvation'
The report, issued in March, said many besieged civilians in areas including Eastern Ghouta must choose between "surrender and starvation." The U.N. has managed to enter the area only a handful of times with limited supplies.
One local activist and filmmaker, who is in Eastern Ghouta and asked that his name not be used, said via Skype that residents had some hope before the chemical weapons attack. But not afterward.
There are 1.3 million people in Eastern Ghouta, he says, and they feel "all alone. They don't care anymore how the outside world looks at them because they see no hope."
Residents are focused on day-to-day existence, relying on locally grown food and power produced by solar, animal manure and burning plastic.
Without electricity, few have access to news of anything beyond their area. The activist says that few are even aware of the rise of the Islamic State in the north and east of Syria and in Iraq.
The activist says that in the wake of the chemical attack, people began to accept more radical trends among the rebels.
"They see no one is coming to help them but those people, as bad as they are," he says. "This chemical attack is not an anniversary for us. It's one [link] in a very long chain of big disasters that are still going on until now."
Alison Meuse reported from her base in Beirut. You can follow her @AliTahmizian.
The human toll of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is becoming clearer by the day. The virus has killed at least 1,350 people, making this the largest outbreak of the disease ever.
There's no Ebola cure, and only a few experimental treatments are in the works.
One called ZMapp, which contains antibodies against the Ebola virus, was used to treat two Americans who fell ill, a Spanish priest and three health care workers in Liberia, despite the fact that the medicine hadn't been safety tested for humans.
While the World Health Organization has said it's ethical to use unapproved treatments and vaccine in this unprecedented Ebola outbreak, there aren't many options. And supplies of ZMapp "are now exhausted," WHO said Thursday.
What would it take to make Ebola drugs a clinical reality? Financial incentives might help.
Even now, Ebola isn't the most appealing business proposition for drugmakers. While devastating to the people infected, Ebola hasn't, thankfully, been a widespread illness since it was first identified in 1976. Before the current outbreak, fewer than 3,000 people had reportedly died from the disease.
In the U.S., drugs to treat rare diseases have become lucrative, thanks to tax incentives, special regulatory protection and a willingness by insurers and governments to pay for life-saving treatments.
But Ebola, like many other diseases that are mainly a threat in less-developed countries, have been largely neglected by drugmakers.
Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO's assistant director-general, said last week that the lack of an approved Ebola drug is a "market failure" because the disease typically strikes "poor people in poor countries where there is no market."
Most Ebola drug research has been financed by the U.S. government, she said, with Canada also pitching in.
For Ebola, there may need to be more financial help to get research started and a reward for success. "As an investor, your expectation is that in the future very few people will have this disease and very few will be in rich countries," says Duke health economist David Ridley. "Should you pay money up front for clinical trials, or should you dangle a sufficiently big prize? It's both."
Ridley is one of the architects of an idea to encourage the development of drugs for neglected tropical diseases that has become U.S. law. Companies that get Food and Drug Administration approval for a drug to treat one of 16 neglected diseases disease get a voucher that moves any drug of their choice to the head of the line for agency review. The fast-track voucher can be sold to another drugmaker that's willing to pay for a shortcut.
Earlier this year, Knight Therapeutics, a Canadian firm, won a voucher when FDA approved its leishmaniasis drug, just the sort of medicine WHO's Kieny wants to see more of. Knight is now trying to cash in its leishmaniasis prize by selling the priority voucher to the highest bidder.
Funding by the Defense Department and National Institutes of Health has provide a push for Ebola research, Ridley says. "An extra pull, like the voucher, would be a great move," he says.
Ebola isn't on the list of neglected tropical diseases that automatically qualify for an FDA voucher. But Ridley says that would be easy to fix. The secretary of Health and Human Services can amend the voucher regulation to cover "any other infectious disease for which there is no significant market in developed nations and that disproportionately affects poor and marginalized populations."
That sounds like Ebola, doesn't it?
It was a photo that took the Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa and made it very personal.
A little boy named Saah Exco, 10 years old, lies in a crumpled heap. He had been found naked on a beach in West Point, an impoverished Monrovia neighborhood. Saah had been a patient at the Ebola holding center there, for suspected Ebola cases.
And then there he was, naked on the beach. Drifting in and out of consciousness.
People in the neighborhood knew him. But they were afraid to touch him. Many folks in West Point — and throughout West Africa — don't think Ebola is real. Yet they were afraid. What if Ebola really is real and what if the boy had the virus? It's what NPR photographer Dave Gilkey, who took the photo of the boy that ran on our website, calls "an evil Catch 22."
The boy was given a shirt and pants. But no one wanted to hold him, to take him into a home. Efforts were made to get him to a clinic but the clinic said no: The facility was not equipped to handle suspected Ebola patients.
Eventually a neighbor took Saah to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, which cares for Ebola patients.
There was a brief glimmer of hope yesterday — word came that the boy was improving.
Then today, his fate became clear. Getty photographer John Moore, who had also taken pictures of Saah, spoke to the boy's aunt. She was checking into a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Monrovia with her five children — all of them, including her, suspected Ebola cases. The aunt said that Saah died yesterday at JFK hospital. She said the boy's mother had previously died of Ebola as well.
In a country where some believe that the virus isn't real, Saah Exco is now one of more than 500 victims, sealed in a tiny body bag.