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.

Christopher Paul Curtis' 'The Mighty Miss Malone' (cover detail)
Christopher Paul Curtis’ ‘The Mighty Miss Malone’ (cover detail)

“These Books Are Not For Us”

Ellen Oh tells a story of being in a bookstore in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2012, and watching a little white girl reach for The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, a book with a black girl on the cover. “Her mother takes that out of her hands and says, ‘Oh no, honey, that’s not for you.’” Oh recalls. This is a version of a story I heard repeatedly from the librarians, authors, and editors I interviewed.

In kids’ publishing, adults who determine which book kids will see are known as gatekeepers. “It’s so easy for people to point at publishing,” Oh says. “Yet they are publishing diverse titles that are not being seen, and that’s a gatekeeper issue. I find it problematic to think that any librarians, teachers, and booksellers could think a book about an animal is more relatable than a book about a black kid.”

This kind of discrimination and ignorance ricochets around and creates vicious cycles, industry veterans say. A chorus of, “It’s not for us” from gatekeepers could mean future diverse writers get rejected with the explanation, “These books don’t sell.” And if fewer diverse books sit on shelves, readers don’t know they should be looking for them, which leads to those books selling poorly and going out of print. And back and forth and around again.

Yet by the same logic, positive exposure also reverberates into the future.  In the 2015 of the ascendant #Blacklivesmatter movement, a moral force drives this literary activism. Many of the authors who comprise WNDB’s staff describe a moment when they saw an author or character who shared their ethnic or gender background, and realized, “Hey, that could be me.” Books allow children to peek into each other’s worlds, and also to find an affirming reflection of themselves, a curricular concept often referred to as “windows and mirrors.” “Boys need to see girls play sports. Girls need to see other girls pay sports. White children need to see black, Asian, and Latino children as princesses and soccer players,“ says Lori L. Tharps, a novelist and journalist who speaks and writes about race in publishing. “Black children need to not only see slave stories. They need to see little black children on dragons.”

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Editorial staffers at publishing houses tout windows and mirrors, too. This past December at Scholastic’s Manhattan offices, where Clifford the Big Red Dog and Harry Potter reign supreme, Andrea Pinkney, VP and Editor-at-Large of Scholastic Trade Books, walked me over to their office carpet, which carries the company’s founding credo on its very fibers, including the phrase: “Respect for the diverse groups in our multicultural society.” “It’s in our DNA,” she told me. Scholastic has even printed out house-made buttons that proclaim, “We Have Diverse Books.”

We Need Diverse Books’ team has come up with ideas to help connect readers with those diverse books that do already exist. For instance, they launched an NEA-affiliated program for classrooms that culminates in a visit from authors, they’re creating an educational toolkit for schools and libraries with School Library Journal, and their tech team is working on an app to connect readers with books. They’re running a contest to select the final story in a short story anthology. On social media, they try to pair readers with books they might like for summer reading and the holidays. Their powerhouse advisory board includes big names like Jacqueline Woodson, among others.

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Boosting sales for already-existing books is one major way to get new books in the pipeline. Just as juggernauts like Twilight and The Hunger Games result in a flurry of book deals for blatant imitators, so do low-selling or out-of-print books make big houses wary of acquiring similar titles — even if similar just means the same ethnicity.

Editors speak about watching diverse books they acquire falter in the marketplace. “Especially in children’s books, you really rely on these sales,” says Phoebe Yeh, VP and Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers at Random House, who just acquired the WNDB anthology of short fiction. “If a wonderful book disappears, it’s just that much harder. People have to read the books.” Yeh and the CCBC’s Horning both recommended shopping for diverse books as a form of consumer activism, a way to counteract the buyers out there saying, “It’s not for us.”

In 2005, Alvina Ling, Executive Editorial Director of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, published a book by Grace Lin called The Year of the Dog. “It’s about an Asian-American girl who lives in a small town,” she says. “It’s sweet and classic. Historically that book might be seen as multicultural, quiet, without a huge marketing campaign behind it.” But something was different this time. The buyer at Barnes and Noble had a half-Chinese son, and therefore felt a personal connection to this book. Suddenly, it was everywhere. “If he hadn’t been there, it would not have found as wide an audience,” Ling says.

Whether it’s attention from buyers or big prizes, any extra boost can help books attract attention, stay in print, avoid the disappearance factor, and ensure that big publishers take on more books with diverse protagonists. Hence, WNDB’s initial fundraising goal was to fund the “Walter” prizes, which would hopefully elevate more books to that classic status each year, keeping them in print and in classrooms.

One publisher that has felt particular synergy with WNDB is New York- based Lee & Low, a specialty kids’ publisher for whom diversity isn’t just part of the mission – it’s the entire mission. Marketing and Publicity Director Hannah Ehrlich thinks all publishers can learn from their model. “We’re not a nonprofit,” she says. “The fact that people buy our books is proof that diverse books do sell.”

Yet, by the same token, she says that Lee & Low have to adjust their marketing when they think the diversity angle might shut doors, particularly with booksellers who may face “parent pushback.” “We find, when we’re pitching books, we have to tweak our pitch depending on whom we’re speaking to,” Ehrlich says. “We tell people we have diverse books when they’re looking for diverse books, but for some people that’s a turnoff, it sounds like required reading. In terms of the language we use, we have to be mindful.”

That kind of delicate, focused marketing — racially sensitive for authors and content, while also anticipating and deflating potential reader prejudice — is certainly an acquired approach. And some writers are skeptical that such a specific skill set can currently be found at cash-strapped corporate publishers desperate for a major hit, no matter how devoted some editors may be. “They may publish your book, but it will languish in a warehouse,” says the novelist and journalist Tharps. “The publishing industry just lives in 1947.”

A WNDB-affiliated internship program, spearheaded by Newbery-winning writer Linda Sue Park, aims to change publishing from the inside. Park says she’d been talking about the idea with Walter Dean Myers before he passed away last year, and before WNDB was formed. “If a young person of color really wanted to write, they’d have to work hard, but there are opportunities,” she says. “I didn’t see anything that was happening in publishing itself. And that matters with issues that come up — from editing that isn’t culturally sensitive to sales, PR, and marketing that asks, ‘What do we do with this [diverse book]?’”

The internship question plagues creative industries. Without funded internships, recruiting beyond certain elite schools, and mentoring for diverse interns, you can’t build a “pipeline” for talent. So getting the WNDB internship program — which will initially piggyback on already-extant publishing internships — to the point at which it affects the makeup of publishing companies, and by extension those publishers’ lists, is a long game. But it’s probably the most important one the group is playing.

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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?