As anyone knows who’s read anything by the five authors on today’s diversity panel, none has ever shied away from controversy, even when it comes to bringing up reasons for not just one but two panels addressing diversity at this year’s BookCon. The first, held yesterday, featured science fiction/fantasy authors. Today’s panel, “We Need Diverse Books Presents Luminaries of Children’s Literature,” in Room 1A10, 11:15 a.m., features authors of both children’s and young adult books and is moderated by author I.W. Gregorio.
“We can’t just have this big fight last year, and then not follow up,” declares Jacqueline Woodson, referring to the widespread outrage last spring over BookCon 2014’s initial monochromatic author lineup that resulted in the We Need Diverse Books movement exploding on social media before taking on the real world. Woodson, who received the 2014 National Book Award in the young people’s category for her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, compares the calls for more diversity in the book world to the 1960s civil rights movement. “As my editor would say, ‘It’s a great beginning,’” she says, noting that the call for diversity includes more than simply race, other identities as well. “People are hungry to be part of the conversation,” Woodson says. “Our work isn’t done until we all feel a part of it.”
Libba Bray (The Diviners) wholeheartedly agrees with Woodson that diversity isn’t just about skin color. “My father was gay. And he was a minister. And I grew up in North Texas in the ’70s and early ’80s,” she says. “I was in the closet, too, to protect my father. Having a secret identity like that shaped a lot of who I am.” Being unable to confide in anybody about her father’s sexual preference, she recalls, made her “hunger” for books or movies that “spoke to my experience.” She admits to watching the television sitcom Soap, which ran from 1977 to 1981, primarily because of the gay character played by Billy Crystal. Although the show perpetuated gay stereotypes, Bray says, “it was still something I could look at, and identify with—‘there’s someone like my dad.’ The issue of sexual identity is such a touchstone for me.”
David Levithan, an editor at Scholastic, as well as the author of half a dozen novels featuring gay male characters, confesses that he can see both sides of the issue when people castigate the publishing industry for not being more diverse. As both a writer and a publisher, he says he “loves” the spirit behind the push for more multicultural books, especially in children’s publishing. “People don’t go into children’s books for the money or for the fame,” he notes. “They go into it for the genuine desire to make the world a better place; diversity and equality of opportunity are an essential part of that.” But sometimes, Levithan adds, it’s “not enough to have the better angels on your side. Sometimes the better angels need a little more organization, a tune to play with their trumpets.”
Sometimes, it just takes a kick in society’s collective butt, says Meg Medina, best-known for her novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. “When I go into schools,” she says, “everybody is in those seats. We need to hear the stories of everybody, and give to children literature that’s representative of who’s sitting in classrooms.” After all, she points out, during the 2014–2015 school year, the majority of students in U.S. public schools were, for the first time, not white. Teachers and librarians must be informed about, and provide students with access to, award-winning books that “speak to all experiences,” she says.
Not only is the U.S. becoming “browner and browner,” points out multiple award-winning author Sherman Alexie, who writes for both adults and young adults, but this generation of teenagers is less “narcissistic” than previous ones with whom he’s interacted since his 1993 debut release for young adult readers, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. It’s “not just the brown kids,” he says, who have “a natural hunger” for books that reflect their own realities: “these kids, unlike any other generation, want to read outside their experiences, they want to read other people’s stories.
“Outside forces are changing publishing; now it’s up to publishers to change it from the inside,” he insists. “Something’s wrong when television is more diverse than publishing.” Alexie doesn’t let readers and book buyers off the hook while he and his fellow panelists make the “white liberals [in the publishing industry] feel bad about themselves,” he says. “It’s up to us to go to the bookstores and buy shitloads of [multicultural] books. If you can’t afford to do that, go to your library and demand that they stock them.”
This article appeared in the May 31, 2015 edition of PW BookCon Daily.