In the year and a half since the We Need Diverse Books movement began in response to an all-white slate of authors scheduled for BookCon in 2014, publishers have become more sensitive to the need for greater diversity among the books and authors they publish, and awards committees have sought more variety in the books they honor. But despite all the talk on social media about diverse titles, if the books aren’t available in bookstores and actively promoted, they won’t find their readers.
As the U.S. population shifts, the need grows for diverse books that provide windows for young children to understand others and mirrors to see themselves reflected. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last summer, the number of millennials (born between 1982 and 2000) now exceeds the number of baby boomers. And millennials are more diverse than preceding generations, with 44.2% belonging to a minority race or ethnic group (i.e., other than non-Hispanic single-race white). Furthermore, the entire population has become more racially diverse, with minority races and ethnicities increasing from 23.9% of the population in 2004 to 37.9% in 2014.
Those statistics haven’t always been reflected in bookstore inventories, but a number of children’s booksellers are making a concerted effort to offer customers diverse titles—not just books by and about people of color but books that reflect different sexual orientations and the many cultures that call the United States home.
Over the holidays, the Northern California Children’s Booksellers Alliance challenged its East Coast counterpart, the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, to a hand-selling competition to see which region could sell more books featuring incidentally diverse characters. West Coast booksellers chose Jim Averbeck’s picture book One Word from Sophia (S&S/Atheneum), illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail, about a girl with a diverse family who wants a pet giraffe, and Dana Alison Levy’s chapter book The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher (Delacorte), about a family with two dads and four racially diverse adopted sons. NECBA and children’s booksellers in the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association picked Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam), illustrated by Christian Robinson, which follows an African-American boy and his grandmother on their ride through town after church. (It went on to win the 2016 Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor at ALA Midwinter earlier this month.)
For Anne Whaling, children’s book buyer at Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., this challenge was effective, as was an earlier one, in spring 2014, to hand-sell Varian Johnson’s debut novel, The Great Greene Heist (Scholastic/Levine). Both “just spurred us,” Whaling says. “We’ve always been focused, but these things solidified it. It’s everybody’s world; it’s not all white. Publishers need to get on the bandwagon. We need books that reflect the world we live in,” she said. The bookstore’s response to the challenge, which included a window display and a book display at the register for One Word from Sophia, turned the book into Mrs. Dalloway’s bestselling title in December. Going forward, Whaling says that she would like to see more Muslim families and children from the Middle East represented in kids’ books.
Sara Hines, who became a co-owner of Eight Cousins bookstore in Falmouth, Mass., one year ago, took part in both challenges and is planning an event with Johnson when he tours New England for To Catch a Cheat (Scholastic/Levine) in February. Ever since she heard Elizabeth Sher, children’s book buyer at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., talk about making “no exceptions” in promoting diversity, during a NECBA discussion last fall, Hines has adopted it as her own mantra.
“All our displays, regardless of themes, are diverse,” Hines says. “No exception.” She adds, “The newsletters are an important part of our marketing, and the no-exception rule applies there as well. It’s important to step back regularly and critically examine the messages that the store is sending as well as conscientiously weaving diversity into the daily routines of the store. No exception.”
Although Cape Cod, where Eight Cousins is located, is often viewed as predominantly white, Hines points out that 20% of the students at the Falmouth Public Schools identify as African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or multirace non-Hispanic, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education. “Perhaps that percentage isn’t as high as other places,” she added, “but our customer base, the local community as well as people visiting Cape Cod, is diverse. And it is crucial that all kids and their families find representation in our store.”
Across the state, the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley is also committed to selling diverse books in a community that is mostly white and middle-class. “I aim to present a variety of books that reflect the diversity of our world,” buyer Niki Marion says. “For me, diverse books are not only books that include the presence of people of color, Latino, Native American, immigrant, disabled, or QUILTBAG [queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, asexual, gay] characters. I want books [that] contextualize the representation and experiences of these characters within the broader culture of racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia, classism, without lapsing into stereotypes or generalizations.”
Other Types of Diversity
At Chicago’s Women & Children First, diversity was woven into the store’s mission at its founding in 1979 as a feminist bookstore. Since then, the store has been active in the LGBTQ community and has sought books about coming out, equal rights, and alternative families. So it hasn’t had to change its buying to add diverse voices, co-owner Lynn Mooney notes.
For teens, Women & Children First made a conscious decision to make sure that the YAQ (Young Adult Queer) section stands out. “Teens who are curious, or struggling, about gender and sexuality really need this material,” Mooney says. “And they don’t want to ask for help finding it. I also think seeing this first makes teens really curious and think, ‘That’s interesting. What else do they have here?’ ” Mooney would like to see editors and art directors be “more creative” when searching for talent. “The new voices we are just beginning to hear don’t always come out of the same old graduate writing programs,” Mooney says.
One-and-a-half-year-old Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Ill., is one of the few stores to incorporate internationalism into its diversity. Its children’s section stocks books in 28 languages, a reflection of the 153 languages spoken in the Chicago metro region, and the many more spoken in homes across the country. “Our children’s section is not enormous. It’s very carefully curated,” co-owner Nina Barrett says. “We give a lot of display space to these books, and I feel it’s a huge draw. Evanston has a very international population. You find multicultural families from other countries, or people who try to raise their children bilingually.” For the large Russian community in neighboring Skokie, the bookstore carries Russian fairy tales in their native language, and it provides foreign-language books for events at the Evanston library, including children’s books written in Chinese.
Bookends & Beginnings also tries to serve churchgoers at a nearby black Baptist church by having a large African-American section. “We want to be good citizens,” co-owner Jeff Garrett says, adding that “books about Africa are very different than books from Africa.” When two parishioners came to the store looking for books on Christmas and winter, they rejected stories from Haiti and Africa. They preferred books featuring black families, but written from an American perspective.
Hand-Selling and Merchandising Diverse Books
Long before We Need Diverse Books, children’s book author Elizabeth Bluemle—co-owner of 20-year-old Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt., and a PW blogger—was concerned about getting diverse books into the hands of her customers, particularly in a state that as recently as 2014 was 95% white. In August 2009, she wrote a blog post titled “Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?” In it, she announced that she was launching a diversity database on LibraryThing to catalogue books that feature characters of color, and stories about contemporary American children that don’t have race as the driving issue.
“As booksellers,” Bluemle says, “we often fall back on classic favorites or brand-new books and forget to recommend some wonderful, slightly older titles.” She tries to avoid that trap and keep in mind diverse titles such as Crystal Allen’s How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) for middle graders. The database, which she continues to maintain, contains hundreds of similar titles, for which race is incidental. Bluemle has noticed that parents in her store are becoming much more interested in buying diverse titles for their kids. “Diversity is finally reaching normalcy,” she says—not that Bluemle doesn’t resort to a few tricks to make sure that parents give equal weight to diverse books. One that she finds particularly successful is to start recommending a book before she pulls it off the shelf. Once a customer is hooked on the story, race truly becomes incidental.
One of the Odyssey Bookshop’s strategies is to focus on children rather than their parents, Marion says. “[Children] know that reading is not just about reflecting the reality they see every day but also expanding it. It is much easier to hand a book like George to a kid you know and tell him or her, ‘You’ll really like this,’ ” she says. “By focusing on children’s literature’s true audience, the child, you bypass the parents’ ideologies and give the child the authority to decide for herself or himself.”
“Selling diverse books is really about building trust,” says Sarah Bagby, majority owner of Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kans. That trust enabled her to convince the store’s adult book club to read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin/Paulsen). Although few wanted to read it initially, Bagby found that many readers ended up loving it.
But that’s not the only way that Bagby has built trust around diverse books. “The place where we’ve had our biggest success has been in areas where we’ve developed relationships with nonprofit organizations that care about literacy,” Bagby says. Watermark formed a successful partnership with Storytime Village, a nonprofit children’s literacy organization that works with underserved children from birth to age eight. Now Storytime wants to start an adult book group for the parents of these kids. Rather than hold the group at the bookstore, Bagby plans to bring books to the parents at school, where they will be comfortable.
“I think as booksellers, we just try to find great stories and go from there,” says Meghan Dietsche Goel, children’s and YA book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, and Texas Teen Book Festival program director. “I’ve found that our customers are very open to all kinds of stories and generally respond with great enthusiasm to books with diverse points of view.” Though this hasn’t always been the case at most stores, booksellers such as Bluemle at the Flying Pig find that customers are open to reading diverse books. As Mrs. Dalloway’s Whaling pointed out, many of the people who shop at the store may be white, but like Sophia in Averbeck’s picture book, they have family members of different races and nationalities. This lets Goel merchandise diverse books in many of the same ways she does other store favorites, such as by featuring them in BookPeople’s newsletter, in displays, and on staff selection shelves.
Several years ago, BookPeople added a Global Stories section to call attention to books that speak to global cultural traditions or experiences. Last year, the store partnered with Chris Barton and other Austin writers, including Don Tate, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Varian Johnson, to launch BookPeople’s Modern First Library, an online blog series and permanent in-store display. “[It’s] designed to help our customers curate their own home libraries to reflect a world that’s broad, inclusive, and complex, just like the one we all live in,” Goel says. “Both of these sections feature some great books and seem to have resonated with our customers based on their very strong sales.”
But it’s not always easy to sell diverse titles, as Jilleen Moore, buyer at Square Books Jr. in Oxford, Miss., has found. “The fact is that the age-old ‘that won’t work here’ is incorrect and begs rethinking. But it is unfortunately a real consideration for the buyer who has a limited budget,” she says. “We have to be proactive and task certain kids or parents to read the titles we deem most important, so that we can garner community trust and actually sell what we buy. These days the titles that deal with traditionally sensitive issues, like racial discrimination, are purchased by parents and grandparents obligingly, apologetically even. The edgier books about war-torn countries, human rights, gender-identity questions, religious/ethnic clashes, and environmental concerns still feel a bit like a horse pill going down. It is sometimes discouraging.”
The bookseller’s job is to provide books to satisfy their customers. “If we can expand our patrons’ horizons while we are at it, we will certainly try,” Moore says. Fortunately, booksellers around the country are making that their mission.
This list is based on recommendations from Meghan Dietsche Goel at BookPeople, Sara Hines at Eight Cousins, Niki Marion at Odyssey Bookshop, Lynn Mooney at Women & Children First, and Jilleen Moore at Square Books Jr.
Booksellers Recommend Diverse Books
Chloe in India
Kate Darnton (Delacorte, out now)
This book tells the story of a friendship between two preteens divided by class, language, and appearance, who are both new to Class Five at Premium Academy in New Delhi, India. Ages 9–12.
Michael Grant (HarperCollins/Tegen, out now)
In a starred review, PW called Grant’s novel a “skillfully imagined alternate history.” Ages 14–up.
Jon Walter (Scholastic/Fickling, out now)
“Middle grade author Walter... pulls readers into life on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the final years of the Civil War,” PW wrote in a starred review. Ages 12–up.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Mildred D. Taylor (Puffin, out now)
The 40th-anniversary edition of Taylor’s classic novel, set in Mississippi during the Depression, features a new cover by Caldecott Honor artist Kadir Nelson. Ages 11–up.
J.J. Austrian, illus. by Mike Curato (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, out now)
“Debut author Austrian proves that it’s possible to be silly and incisive at the same time,” PW wrote in a starred review. Ages 4–8.
Bonnie Sue Hitchcock (Random/Lamb, Feb.)
This debut novel, set in Fairbanks, Ala., in the 1970s, follows four teens who are searching for their place in the world. Ages 12–up.
Jeff Garvin (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Feb.)
In a starred review, PW wrote, “Debut author Garvin clearly wants to teach his readers about gender and gender fluidity, but the knowledge he imparts buoys this rewarding story.” Ages 14–up.
Jeff Zentner (Crown, Mar.)
“Zentner explores difficult themes head on—including the desire to escape the sins of the father and the fragility of happiness—while tempering them with the saving grace of enduring friendship,” PW wrote in a starred review. Ages 14–up.
Unidentified Suburban Object
Mike Jung (Scholastic/Levine, Apr.)
Chloe Cho has just about had it with people thinking that she gets good grades because she’s Asian and not knowing whether someone is Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Ages 8–up.
The Star-Touched Queen
Roshani Chokshi (St. Martin’s Griffin, May)
Sixteen-year-old Maya has earned the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom in this story inspired by Indian mythology. Ages 13–up.
Thunder Boy Jr.
Sherman Alexie, illus. by Yuyi Morales (Little, Brown, May)
National Book Award winner Alexie and Caldecott Honor–artist Morales celebrate the relationship between father and son. Ages 3–6.
Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown, July)
Set 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, this novel focuses on fifth grader Deja and her friends, who explore big questions such as who they are and what America means. Ages 8–12.