On April 15, authors and librarians affiliated with We Need Diverse Books addressed a full room of MFA students at the New School in New York City to talk both about the state of diversity in publishing as well as steps emerging writers can take to include diversity in their work. Panelists included Allie Jane Bruce, children’s librarian at the Bank Street College of Education, authors Sona Charaipotra, Renée Watson, Tim Federle, and author/librarian Dhonielle Clayton.
Bruce started the discussion by addressing the state of children’s literature, by drawing on the recent CCBC survey in which statistics show the representation of diverse populations in recently published books. While gains are being made for some populations, Bruce argued that the number of diverse books being published has still not caught up with the actual world, where the US alone has a population that is 37% people of color, and more than 50% of US school attendees are people of color.
The panel emphasized writing to the crowd of future authors, and each panelist addressed the question of who has the right to write diversity. Clayton, as a published author herself whose book (Tiny Pretty Things, co-authored with panelist Charaipotra) includes characters from different racial backgrounds, said “I would be a hypocrite to say not everybody,” while Federle added that before he wrote his book, he was eager to write and went to a bookstore to see what was popular for inspiration, but ultimately heeded the advice of his agent, to “write the book only you can write.” Watson seconded Clayton’s hesitant “everybody” with the caveat that with the right to write outside of your experience comes a great responsibility. Charaipotra warned against creating a representation that tells only one side of a story, or is perhaps stereotypical and inauthentic. Bruce added that as a librarian she is cautious to say anyone can write for marginalized groups, citing that those writing from non-dominant groups tend to get it better in books she’s read. She also added that there are certain groups, notably Native Americans and the disabled, that are still greatly misrepresented in literature.
The panel then covered a range of questions, from writing diversity comedically (Federle added that he was concerned when comedy writers were more cautious and politically correct); to writing diversity as a trend. “Don’t do that,” Watson stated bluntly. All authors underscored the importance of writing diversity not as a trend but as an actual reflection of our world. “When I see shows set in New York City with no people of color in a scene, that is a problem,” Watson said. The authors also shared their own tips for introducing diversity into work. A recent short story Federle wrote focused on a love story between two boys, where one character was introducing his boyfriend to his family, and sexual orientation was not made a point at all in the story, rather it was a focus on the characters’ interactions.
Charaipotra, who earned her MFA at the New School, brought up “another MFA word, intersectionality,” a term for diverse characters who belong to more than one group, for example, a lesbian of color or a disabled gay kid. “How do we put these things together,” Charaipotra asked the panel, “so that we’re not just checking boxes. Because we’re not all just one thing.” Bruce added an anecdote from Jacqueline Woodson regarding From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, in which a character’s mother enters a relationship with a white woman. Early criticisms Woodson received were that the intersectionality was that “there can’t be too many [issues]” at work in a text. Woodson’s response was, “yes it can, because that’s life.” Bruce added that the mitigating of intersectional diversity comes from a privileged perspective, a perspective that can sanitize diversity in books in order to make things more comfortable for non-dominant readers.
In offering the audience suggestions in getting it right in their own writing, the authors suggested seeking readers in the groups they’re writing about to get feedback. In Watson’s own history as an author she has reached out to people to get feedback when writing about a group of which she is not a member. Clayton, as a We Need Diverse Books, indicated the organization’s website as a good resource to access readers of the group writers are portraying to get honest, authentic feedback on manuscripts. Federle, too, suggested finding people outside MFA programs and the publishing industry, the kind of people that don’t read as much but are the ones you want to find your book in bookstores, to get honest feedback. Ultimately, though, the panelists were optimistic about growing representations of diversity in publishing, and Federle urged the audience to “just write the book only you can write, the other stuff,” publicity from the publisher and where books are shelved in a bookstore, “is out of your control.” Watson agreed, “I write what I’m passionate about,” and when that passion reflects the diverse world around them, authors will easily find diverse content, and audiences for their work.