We Need Diverse Books: Can Children’s Authors End Publishing Industry Prejudice — and Change the Way America Reads?

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As young adult novelists Ellen Oh and Lamar Giles sat together on a panel at a Virginia teen literature conference in early 2014, Oh relished the rare experience of sharing the stage with another author of color. She had already been thinking about an initiative to expand diversity in children’s literature, and that day she wondered: “Why can’t it be like this all the time?”

Both Oh and Giles had grown fatigued with the diversity discussion that repeatedly arose in the children’s and YA books (or “kidlit,” as it’s called) community, only to fizzle out again. Debriefing with Giles after the panel, Oh remembers telling him of her plan: “We have to do something, and we have to do something big.” She asked him, “Are you in?”

A few weeks later We Need Diverse Books, the social media movement that has grown into a well-regarded nonprofit in a matter of months, was born. The founders had already started planning their campaign when, not for the last time, an incident of industry racism gave them momentum. In April, BookCon — a subsidiary of New York-based publishing mega-conference BookExpo — announced a panel of superstar children’s authors that consisted of all white men, while the overall conference lineup was all white people, aside from Grumpy Cat.

Suddenly, the response hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks overran online discussion of the conference. Eventually, the WNDB activists were granted time and space at the June conference to stage counter-programming. In the meantime, they had waged a major social media campaign, utilizing tweets, user-submitted photos on Tumblr (images with signs explaining why diverse books matter), and more. “Now is the time to raise our voices into a roar that can’t be ignored,” they implored followers.

Some participants and observers in the social media storm were encouraged to throw in their lot with WNDB, even beyond the web. “I was on board from the start, but I was kind of tired. I thought, ‘It will blow up on Twitter, a few people will write angry blog posts, and then it will disappear,’” says Corinne Duyvis, a disability-in-literature advocate who joined up when she realized the extent of the group’s commitment. “People are responding because we have concrete ideas and plans,” she says. In June, Oh used the hastily convened BookCon panel to announce WNDB’s initiatives. Their actions items begin with BookCon itself. In 2015, the conference is partnering with WNDB on two panels, one featuring Jacqueline Woodson and Sherman Alexie, and another on diversity in science fiction and fantasy. This doesn’t mean the convention’s diversity issues have been fixed, but it’s an example of the kind of change WNDB has effected in a short time.

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WNDB incorporated in July. Then, in October, the organization launched a successful Indiegogo campaign to fund the expansion of its programs, which are already underway. The organization’s seven-person executive committee, three officers, and a 31-person WNDB “team” who meet virtually have just begun accepting submissions for The Walter Dean Myers Award and Grants, the former known as “The Walter,” which will honor diverse books each year. They are also developing an internship program to help diversify publishing from the inside out. And on top of all this, they’re compiling resources for teachers and librarians — with help from the NEA, First Books, An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation, and School Library Journal, exploring technology to match readers with books — and mounting a conference of their own in 2016, The Children’s Literature Diversity Festival in Washington, DC.

Giles, who serves as VP of Communications for the organization, describes the workload involved with WNDB as being “like having a very demanding part-time job in which nobody gets paid.” And their voluntary labor extends beyond critiquing “pale male” panels at conferences, because the problem they face goes far deeper. While it’s a nice gesture that bookstores and libraries may be displaying diverse books around this time of year for February’s Black History Month, the numbers tell a less encouraging story.

In 2013, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Wisconsin cataloged 3,200 children’s books, constituting a majority of all children’s books published that year. Of these, only 68 – about two percent – had black authors. A slightly larger number, 93, had black protagonists. The numbers are either comparable or worse for Asian Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, and show stagnant or regressive movement. “The population in the US is growing increasingly diverse,” says CCBC’s K. T. Horning. “You would never know that from children’s books.” She calls it a glass ceiling, one that resembles the glass ceilings in the book industry itself. In 2014, Publishers Weekly expanded its salary survey to include questions about race. The results, released last September, were dismal: “89 percent described themselves as white/Caucasian.” Three percent were Asian, three percent Hispanic, and one percent African American.

Yet WNDB’s strategy goes far beyond the publishing industry to include parents, teachers, booksellers, and readers in an all-hands-on-deck effort, sweeping characters with disabilities and LGBT characters into their fold. It’s natural to wonder whether this kind of feel-good, “everyone’s involved and everyone’s responsible” initiative can alter the notoriously glacial pace of publishing. Yet publishing professionals at least claim to share the group’s values — only 11 percent of PW’s surveyed members said diversity was not a problem in their field — which makes the industry positively pliable compared to WNDB’s bigger obstacle. That, of course, would be entrenched American prejudice, the force that leads parents and teachers to dismiss books with characters who don’t superficially resemble their kids.

The way this kind of everyday racism bleeds into the kidlit world was made evident after the National Book Awards. At that November ceremony, Lemony Snicket’s Daniel Handler made, in his own words, a “monstrously” racist comment about author Jacqueline Woodson (his friend), who won in the children’s books category for her verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. Handler apologized soon thereafter and agreed to match donations to WNDB up to $100,000. “It would be heartbreaking for the #NBAwards conversation to focus on my behavior instead of great books,” Handler tweeted. WDNB agreed to receive the donations, but members wanted the social media focus turned back to Woodson’s book rather than the incident, and thus, they and Handler used the Twitter hashtag #CelebrateJackie. With that crucial decision, they’d further cemented themselves as the go-to group for anti-discrimination advocacy in the kidlit world. One hundred thousand dollars from supporters, including a boost from Dork Diaries author Rachel Renée Russell, and $110,000 from Handler later, WNDB had a small windfall.

Still, compared to the budgets of publishing houses, these monetary resources are negligible. And the problem is entrenched: similar racial disparity persists, frustratingly, in other creative fields, like publishing writ large, Hollywood, and journalism. Yet there’s something poetically fitting about WNDB — a plucky band of activists courageously facing down insidious social structures and insurmountable odds. It almost sounds like the plot of a children’s book.