Four years ago, just before the first BookCon literary fanfest, the long-simmering frustration among many in the industry and beyond concerning the lack of diversity in contemporary children’s literature boiled over, and We Need Diverse Books was born. Since 2014, the grassroots organization has been front and center at trade shows and literary festivals, and both BookExpo and BookCon organizers also have committed themselves to scheduling panels meant to raise awareness of diversity and multiculturalism in literature.
The diversity movement is now stepping it up a notch. If there was a common theme to the “In Conversation—LatinX Authors” and “Rise Up!” panels at BookExpo 2018, as well as the We Need Diverse Books panel at this year’s BookCon, it was this: diversity should not be a monolith in publishing—there are multiplicities of differences.
“There’s not one LatinX story,” moderator Cristina Arreola, senior books editor at Bustle, pointed out during a lively discussion among LatinX children’s authors Diana López (Lucky Luna), Sarai Gonzalez (Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome), and Daniel José Older (the Shadowshaper series), plus author-illustrator Rafael López (We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands). “It’s not one culture, it’s a lot of cultures,” Gonzalez added, as LatinX peoples include Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, most South Americans, and Spaniards, among others—as well as, in the U.S., the children of immigrants. Noting that she is a Mexican-American who grew up in Texas, Diana explained that her best friend grew up in Puerto Rico, and thus speaks a completely different dialect. “We all write from our experience,” she said. “I understand the Tex-Mex experience and Tex-Mex Spanish. I can’t understand [her friend’s] Spanish.”
After Arreola noted that Esperanza Rising, the 2000 historical YA novel set in Mexico by Pam Muñoz Ryan, was the only novel with LatinX characters and themes available to her during her childhood, Older said that, growing up Cuban, there were no books reflecting his experience—which motivated him to become a writer. “I had to ‘translate’ characters,” he said. “I don’t want that happening to anybody else.” Rafael López noted that of all the panelists, only Gonzalez gets to see herself in a book during her youth, as the 13-year-old actress and dancer’s first volume in a series based on her life and adventures, Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome, is being published in September.
Rafael explained that, now that more LatinX writers are getting published, and book covers are showing more LatinX faces, it’s incumbent upon LatinX authors to “show the world how complex we are” by writing books that go “beyond stories about tortillas.” Older pointed out that the LatinX experience traditionally is reduced to “brown-ness,” and that he hopes there will be more attention paid in the future to “Afro-LatinX” peoples and cultures in contemporary literature. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is a good start, he said.
The discussion among the “Rise Up!” panelists—YA authors Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera (What If It’s Us), Tahereh Mafi (A Very Large Expanse of Sea), and Ibi Zoboi (Pride)—moderated by Veronica Chambers (Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice), touched upon many subjects, including the notion that these authors are writing fiction as a means of resistance to the dominant paradigm.
“The bravest thing I’ve ever done is committing to being a writer, believing in what I want to do, and sharing my truth,” Zoboi, who originally hails from Haiti, said. “I never thought I had permission to write about characters who look like me.” It wasn’t until Edwidge Danticat’s novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, with its Haitian protagonist, was selected in 1998 by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, that Zoboi felt “validated, that a Haitian was chosen.” For her part, Albertalli said that, when she was younger, she didn’t feel that “it was possible for a fat girl to have access” to romance, until she read Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. “It was a game changer for me.” Mafi, noting that she has to “be brave” every time she leaves her house, due to wearing a head covering in adherence to her Muslim beliefs, said that she regards writing fiction with Muslim-American protagonists as her way of telling what it is like to practice Islam in a post-9/11 U.S., and channeling her anger into writing.
Silvera shared that writing a “rom-com about a Puerto Rican boy and a Jewish boy really feels subversive to me,” a sentiment that is amplified by the cover art for What If It’s Us. “To see a love story between two boys treated like a love story between a girl and a boy is so revolutionary,” he said. “I hope the visibility of two boys on the cover will help teenagers who are looking for such a read.”
While the title of this year’s WNDB panel at BookCon revealed little about its content, the author lineup indicated that magic in its various manifestations in middle grade and YA novels was on the menu: besides moderator Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), the panel featured Tomi Adeyemi (Children of Blood and Bone), Tracey Baptiste (The Jumbies), Zoraida Córdova (Bruja Born), Anna-Marie McLemore (When the Moon Was Ours), and Rebecca Roanhorse (Trail of Lightning).
WNDB’s goal, panels co-chair Sandie Chen told PW, has always has been “to move beyond ‘Diversity 101’ and to have conversations that dig deep into various issues surrounding representation and inclusiveness in children’s and YA literature.”
In this year’s panel, Chen said, the goal of the speakers was to illuminate that magic “isn’t limited to stories with European roots.” For instance, Córdova said, the magic in her novels is inspired by her heritage, her Latin-American roots. “The magic is infused with Catholic rituals,” she said. “My background is super Christian vs. paganism, which is dark magic.” In contrast, McLemore took a more secular approach to magic, explaining that “magic belongs to communities, magic is about community.” The magic in her novels, she said, “brings up your secrets, brings up the things you don’t want to talk about.”
Roanhorse, who is Native, emphasized that she works hard to distinguish between magic and the spiritual in her novels, explaining that “the powers that the protagonist gets from her ancestors—that’s magic. What a medicine man does—that is not magic. That is ritual.”
As for Baptiste, she regards magic as a natural extension of the everyday world, pointing out that as a child growing up in Trinidad, she always wore a magical talisman around her neck. “The ability to overcome and persevere, the ability to survive—that’s magic,” she said. And for Ayedemi, too, just as her stories are inspired by her Nigerian heritage and her experiences as a woman of color, the magic in her fiction is inspired by the real world. “I always think lightning is cool,” she said.
Adeyemi and Baptiste both delved into their beliefs that, as women of color, they can best tell stories of oppression via fantasy. “Sometimes, it’s easier to talk about racism and oppression in a fantasy world,” Adeyemi said, while Baptiste noted, “we’re not being subtle. We’re writing to be entertaining, but we’re responding to the terrible things in the world in ways that are palatable to the reader. There are problems in this world that we want you to see in the way we see them.”
Update: An earlier version of this story misstated Daniel José Older's ethnic background and has been corrected.