We Need Diverse Books, the grassroots organization committed to promoting greater inclusivity in children’s literature and the publishing industry, hosted a discussion titled “Life Cycle of a Diverse Book” on June 1, as part of BookExpo. The panelists were author Renée Watson; Beth Phelan, agent at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency; Alvina Ling, editor-in-chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; and Sara Hines, co-owner of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass. Marietta B. Zacker of Gallt & Zacker served as moderator for the dialogue, which focused on writing, acquiring, editing, and handselling books that feature marginalized or underrepresented voices.
Zacker opened the discussion by stating the need for all members of the children’s book community to move past merely acknowledging issues of diverse and authentic representation, to taking effective action in that arena. “At some point, we need to get to Diversity 2.0—to deepen the conversation and to do something about it,” she said. Each of the panelists shared how they are working to achieve this aim in their professional and personal missions.
Watson, who received a 2018 Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Award for her novel Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury), is the founder of the I, Too Arts Collective, a nonprofit striving to support diverse artists. In terms of her “charge as a writer,” Watson said that first and foremost, “I’m thinking about craft and telling a good story.” While she is aware that her views and values often inform her writing, Watson explained that her creative process is “not about an agenda or making a statement.”
One of Watson’s particular interests is telling truthful and empowering stories about “black girls—especially ones growing up in the Pacific Northwest,” where she was raised. As a writer, Watson said she is “always thinking about the intersection of race, gender, and class.” She described her hope in sharing her work with readers: “I don’t want young people to think like me. I want them to think.”
In addition to her role as an agent, Phelan is the founder of #DVpit, a Twitter pitch event geared toward connecting emerging authors of traditionally marginalized backgrounds with agents. Phelan said that she launched the hashtag “to build community,” and has signed participating authors such as Kat Cho, whose YA debut, Gumiho, is due from Putnam in 2019. One of the first questions Phelan asks potential clients is, “What do you want readers to take away from your story?” For writers of all backgrounds and identities, she tries “to remain true to their original creation and what they’re trying to say.”
Once a manuscript crosses her desk, Ling said she looks for a story she loves—and one she can inspire the rest of the team at Little, Brown to get behind. “Publishing is still a passion industry. And reading is so personal,” she said. Ling is in search of books that remind her of childhood favorites; stories she wishes existed when she was young; and those that resonate with her interests as an adult. “In the past,” she said, “I used to feel like I received all of the diverse submissions.” She previously worried, “If I don’t acquire [a diverse manuscript], no one will.” Now, Ling finds there are more agented books by authors of marginalized backgrounds, and editors who are eager to take them on.
As an indie bookseller, Hines is mindful of her role in getting diverse reads into customers’ hands. Her influence extends beyond the books that are stocked at Eight Cousins, to every shelftalker, newsletter, flier, and event created by the store. “The information we put out into our community is important to me,” she said. Hines described how her team has incorporated diversity into their mission statement and employee training process. She also spoke of the need to “take a step back and ask ourselves how our books are representing the store and the community,” while seeking out books of “authenticity and quality.”
Zacker asked the speakers to reflect on the current state of children’s publishing, asking them, “Have we truly diversified?” Phelan suggested, “That depends on the day.” She was encouraged to see this year’s BookExpo YA Editors’ Buzz lineup, which included multiple #ownvoices stories, but she also pointed to the continued prevalence of book deals being reported for white authors. She emphasized the importance of “talking about [the issue] as much as possible, and not being afraid to disagree,” even with colleagues.
Ling believes the industry has progressed from “Diversity 1.0—convincing people we need diverse books,” and is currently working on problem-solving. She has noted a rise in the number of diverse submissions that reach her at Little, Brown. In her view, a critical next step is “diversifying [publishing] staff, booksellers, authors, and agents”—which includes recruitment and retention.
Hines said that part of the challenge in operating a bookstore is being selective while creating an inclusive collection. She is committed to what she calls the “no exception rule” of leaving no gaps in the store’s stock, and hopes one day the inventory at Eight Cousins will be “more diverse then publishing itself.”
Watson asks herself and fellow #ownvoices writers, “How can we be better advocates for our work?” She added that her commitment to the We Need Diverse Books movement is a long-term one. “This is a conversation I’m always having that can be taxing. I’m in it for the marathon, not the sprint.” Zacker likewise stressed that diversity isn’t a fleeting trend: “It is who we are.” She concluded by saying, “The responsibility is on all of our shoulders.”