What a difference a year has made with BookCon, with this year’s literary fanfest featuring not one but two author panels specifically addressing issues of diversity in books and in the publishing industry itself. While Saturday’s panel focused on diversity in science fiction and fantasy, Sunday’s panel addressed diversity in YA literature. We Need Diverse Books, which emerged in the wake of a controversy over the inaugural BookCon’s initially monochromatic author lineup organized the panel.
Aisha Saeed, an author who has been involved with WNDB from the beginning, acknowledged the great strides that the issue of diversity made within the publishing industry during the past year, in her words of welcome to about 300 people attending Sunday’s YA panel at the Javits Convention Center.
“This time last year I stood here at BookCon for our very first We Need Diverse books panel,” she said. “I shared with you how people from the United States to every inhabited continent on this globe helped the We Need Diverse Books hashtag go viral by sharing deeply important and powerful reasons why we need diverse books in our world. One year later, so much has changed. No longer just a hashtag, we are now an official nonprofit,” one that raised $340,000 in a fundraising campaign this past fall.
Besides using the funds to organize a diversity festival in Washington, D.C. in August 2016, publishing an anthology of children’s literature in 2017, and launching a publishing internship program, Saeed announced that the funds will be used to fund the first Walter Dean Myers Award for an established writer, to be presented at the Library of Congress next March. The application process also began on Sunday for the Walter Dean Myers Grant for emerging voices, which will be awarded to five recipients annually.
I.W. Gregorio, who was introduced by Saeed as “a surgeon by day, YA author by night,” served as moderator for a lively panel discussion among an A-list of bestselling authors: Libba Bray, Soman Chainani, David Levithan, Meg Medina, and JacquelineWoodson. The panelists kicked off the discussion with their thoughts on how the events of the past year have shaped the public dialogue on diversity. Medina attributed the trend of diversity “moving into the mainstream” to social media giving people the tools to become galvanized and organized, while Woodson noted “the ferocity of young people” as well as the power of social media to effect change. And Levithan noted that the grassroots movement has resulted in a “spotlight on it that wasn’t there before” that has caught the attention of decision-makers in the industry.
Woodson’s experiences this past year demonstrate the seismic changes in attitudes towards diversity in children’s literature: even though she has won prestigious awards, she noted, she had never written a book that became a national bestseller until Brown Girl Dreaming – which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature this past fall. She attributed it becoming a bestseller to “an amazing publicist, Jessica Shoffel,” and to Daniel Handler’s comments during the award ceremony, which gave the book additional attention. But “a lot of it was the energy of people saying we need diverse books,” Woodson said, which helped bolster sales around the time of its release.
Chainani pointed out that the definition of what constitutes diversity is also expanding, and that, previously, diverse characters in fiction would be “coming to grips” with their differences, while now, diverse fictional characters celebrate “their color or their culture.” After disclosing that a car accident when she was a teenager “demolished one side of [her] face,” Bray complained that characters with disabilities are often portrayed as more “saintly” than others. “And that used to drive me crazy,” she said, “When you’re going through these things, a lot of times what you feel is, ‘fuck you!’ And as a girl, I wanted that.” She wants, she added, to have “that full spectrum of emotion represented.”
Authenticity is important, Medina noted, and sometimes authors and publishers can go overboard in wanting diverse characters, and end up merely perpetuating stereotypes. “You have to write people,” she said – “the richness of their experiences, not just their outward appearance.” Medina urged the audience to “get it right” by talking to diverse people, welcoming their feedback, and being open to diversity in life.
“Don’t do us wrong,” Woodson added, explaining that creating diverse characters who are not authentically drawn “is worse than not doing it at all.”
Addressing the readers in the audience, Gregorio urged them to buy diverse books, as “book buying is a political act,” while Saeed added that borrowing books from one’s local library also works. “And if they’re not there, demand them,” she said, “You have a lot of power as a patron.” Woodson went one further, urging the audience to patronize indie bookstores, because “they support us.”
In a nod to would-be writers, Levithan said that publishers like his company, Scholastic, where he is editorial director, are open to diverse books, but that they’re not receiving enough manuscripts. “Write them and write them really well,” he said. “We can’t do it all ourselves.”
And, as everyone in the industry knows, it takes a village to produce a book. Medina urged the audience, many of whom looked to be in their teens and 20s, to consider careers in publishing. “The book world includes editors, publicists, literary agents,” she said. “We need diversity in those roles too. If you love books, think about where you would fit in terms of writing and publishing along the whole spectrum.”