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

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Counteracting Harmful Tropes

Online, WNDB’s social media team says it is fielding continual requests for diverse book recommendations. Transgender kids of color. Korean kids with physical disabilities. South Asian bisexual fantasy heroines. Readers want, as Tharps says, to see people like themselves riding on dragons, solving mysteries, and falling in love. Varian Johnson, the author of The Great Greene Heist, refers to as this as “casual diversity.” “It’s the idea that a person’s ethnicity, sexuality, ability, or disability informs the character, but doesn’t have to drive the novel,” he says.

In the past, these types of positive outpourings have been overshadowed in the media by nastier ones. University of Pennsylvania Professor Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas has a theory about why readers get tripped up over diversity in YA books, and it is encapsulated by the racist tweets that spewed forth when fans realized that innocent and beloved Rue, from the The Hunger Games, was black. Ignorant readers felt a disconnect between Rue’s symbolic purpose and her racial identity, says Thomas, whose current book project is called The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination in Youth Literature, Media and Fan Culture. “The ‘dark other’ is supposed to be this violent sacrifice — so when a character transcends that and becomes an inspiration for the pathways of good, there’s this widespread rejection by audiences,” she says. “Audiences revolt.”

Many of these knee-jerk responses surely come from kids’ lack of exposure to diverse heroes to begin with, an issue that could very well evolve over time. Yet other preconceptions originate from adults, who may either be biased or simply too uncomfortable to help kids engage with race and sexuality. Coe Booth writes novels about inner-city teens, most recently for Scholastic. “I get emails from readers who say, ‘I’m a white kid in the suburbs and I relate to your books,’” she says. “On the other hand, I’ve had teachers write and say, ‘I would love to teach your book, but I can’t; you use the ‘N word.’”

The nature of racism means that even as certain white audiences and gatekeepers reject heroes of color, young people of color are expected to lap up “classics” that feature white protagonists. And if they fail to connect, that is falsely seen to have wider implications for their literacy. “If you take a book like Anne of Green Gables and give it to a roomful of inner-city kids and they don’t embrace it, do you walk away and say, ‘They don’t read’?” asks Giles. “Kids care about books, if we put books in front of them that they can relate to.”

That’s why the online outpouring of desire for diverse books heartens the WNDB staff. They welcome it: the more social media enthusiasm that’s evident, the more editors can argue that an eager audience is out there, circumventing gatekeepers. The reverse is also true: WNDB’s online following helps prospective writers pinpoint editors and agents who are friendly to their work. Random House’s Yeh says she’s already getting more diverse submissions on her desk this year.

WNDB members remain fierce in their commitment to promoting books that tell stories with LGBT and disabled characters along with racially diverse ones, and don’t think their mission’s broadness dilutes it. Several told me that intersectionality helps them to check their own privilege. And while explanatory books about autism or families with two mommies may be more common than they used to be, the standard the WNDB team are looking at is universal: the widespread acceptance of “casual diversity” as well as more books that explore discrimination, from overt to subtle.

Already, some cultural norms in publishing may have subtly shifted in tandem with WNDB’s rise to prominence. Even if the number of protagonists of color hasn’t budged, Alvina Ling notes that in recent years authors have been encouraged to make their secondary characters racially and sexually diverse. There are a lot more best friends who are queer or disabled or non-white. From a critical perspective, this “sidekick” trend may create a problematic status quo. Yet it also signals that genuine change may be creeping in from the margins, that the coolness factor of diversity is starting to counteract the idea of low sales or “required reading.”

How will we know if WNDB has actually made a dent? Giles says he would love to see publishers commit to increasing diverse content by a small amount at a time, perhaps five percent a year, until the CCBC’s numbers begin to budge. These are the kinds of numerical goalposts that WNDB’s enthusiastic Twitter fan base will have a harder time moving without the support of CEOs, marketing department brass, major booksellers, and other heavyweights.

But stranger things have happened. A year from now, WNDB’s conference in Washington, DC will pioneer a model in which casual diversity reigns supreme. Authors will talk about genres, age groups and styles without worrying about being tokenized or pigeonholed as “the diverse member” of the discussion. And that means that the kind of conversation which gave birth to WNDB could be percolating after every single panel. And who knows whose origin story will be written then?