A crowd of more than 300 people representing various races and ethnicities filled to overflowing a conference room at Javits on Saturday morning for the “The World Agrees: We Need Diverse Books” panel; latecomers were turned away at the door when the room reached capacity, as people stood against walls and sat in the aisles beside the people in seats.
With #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign members handing out buttons declaring “We Need Diverse Books,” as people entered the room, the event felt like a political rally, rather than a discussion about books.
Before four #WNDB representatives provided an introduction to the issues surrounding diversity in contemporary literature and a history of the #WNDB campaign, the spotlight shone on YA author Ellen Oh, the group’s founder. Lamar Giles, one of the five authors participating in a Q&A following the remarks by the #WNDB representatives, described her as “a force of nature” when explaining how he came to be participating on the panel.
The #WNDB campaign emerged out of the controversy that erupted in late April when BookCon announced its initial all-white author line-up. #WNDB has, according to author-panelist Aisha Saeed, generated 162 million Twitter impressions to date since May 1. Author Mike Jung, another panelist, noted that when he heard Oh was behind it, he knew “it’d be big.”
“This campaign is far from over,” Oh declared, as, to one side of the panelists, images of well-known authors and other people holding up signs giving their reasons for needing diverse books scrolled through in a continuous stream on a video screen. “Let’s call this what it is: a call to arms.”
Emphasizing that the campaign is ongoing, Oh announced several new initiatives, both by #WNDB and by other organizations, beginning with an announcement that Lee & Low Books/Tu Books is launching a second New Visions Award for a middle-grade or YA fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The award winner will receive a cash prize of $1000 and a book contract with Lee & Low’s Tu Books imprint. Also, the National Education Association’s Read Across America program and First Book are collaborating with #WNDB to both promote multicultural books and authors though the Diversity in the Classroom initiative. First Book announced in mid-May that it is, in Oh’s words, “putting their money where their heart is” by pledging to purchase 10,000 copies of the multicultural titles it selects for distribution to children in need from low-income families.
“Diversity in the Classroom will bring the opportunity to explore a diverse author’s book to a different classroom every month of the school year,” Oh said, by utilizing First Book’s database of schools that serve children in need and the NEA’s national network of educators. “The classroom will share their discussion about the book on the web and at the end of the month, the students will get to meet the author either in person or via Skype to talk about their reading experience.”
#WNDB also announced its “most ambitious project”: the group is developing the first Children’s Literature Diversity Festival, to be held in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2016. “This will be a celebration of diverse authors and authors who write diversely,” Oh explained, “A festival where every panel, every event will be to celebrate diversity in all of its glory.”
Jacqueline Woodson, who had previously called the packed room “an author’s dream,” told the crowd that the “first problem” is that publishers pigeonhole characters and promote books as “issue-related,” as in “this is a book about a black kid or this is a book about a gay kid.”
“We have to talk about books differently,” she said. Grace Lin agreed, describing her middle-grade fantasy novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a 2010 Newbery Honor book, not simply as a multicultural book with Chinese characters, but as an adventure tale, “with a girl and there’s a dragon,” that should appeal to all readers, not just to Asian-Americans. She recalled that, when she worked for a short period of time as a bookseller in Cambridge, Mass., when Caucasian customers were offered a book featuring a person of color on the cover, they would invariably respond, “No, that’s not for us.”
A lot of these customers, Lin said, didn’t even realize “why they’re saying no.”
Matt De la Pena noted that he was a reluctant reader as a boy, and part of this was because he didn’t read books featuring Latino characters until he got his hands on House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Drown by Junot Diaz as a teen. He consequently “thought that books weren’t for me.” Calling educators “savvier than consumers,” de la Pena gave a shout-out to those teachers who commit their lives to placing multicultural books in the hands of children of diverse backgrounds.
“If you want kids to become ‘monsters,’ he pointed out, “Don’t allow them to read books that offer honest representations of their lives.”
Jung recalled that, growing up, he doesn’t recall “ever reading a book that reflected my ethnicity. Ever.” It wasn’t just the characters resembling her that appealed to her when she first read a book by an African-American author, Woodson said: it was also “the dialogue,” with characters calling their mothers “mama,” just as she did. It was, Woodson said, “not realizing what I’d missed until I saw it on the page, and then being hungry for it the rest of my life.”
But, de la Pena and other panelists emphasized, multicultural books aren’t just for multicultural readers.
“It’s incredibly powerful,” de la Pena explained, “for the suburban white kid to read [my] books.”
Lin agreed that multicultural books aren’t just for minorities. Young readers, she said, have to learn how to adapt and relate to other people, she said, “If non-minority kids don’t get diverse books, they will grow up with only stereotypes” of people of color.
“We need to sell diverse books to people who don’t know they need them,” she explained.
The assumption, Giles noted, that “diverse books don’t sell well is a reality that someone has created. And people in this room have the power to change it.”
Noting that it’s “unbelievable how much momentum there is outside publishing,” to cater to diverse audiences in an increasingly multicultural country, de la Pena said, “There is a movement around publishing. Our job is to sort of push.”
It’s “risky,” to join such a campaign, Jung pointed out, but it’s also “vital, necessary, and absolutely important” to do so to effect change.
“Everyone here is speaking out, and stepping up,” he pointed out, as the panelists applauded their audience.
Woodson may have summed the tenor of the entire panel best, when she said, “My biggest vision is that we don’t have to have this panel anymore,” because she wants to “walk into rooms where audiences are all as diverse” as the crowd in front of her at Javits.
“My vision is,” she added, “That there is no ‘other.’ These books aren’t just for the people who look like us. They’re for all of us.”
A shorter version of this story appeared in Monday’s PW Daily.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that #WNDB generated 162 million Tweets. The hashtag generated 162 million Twitter impressions.