In response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, as well as the current tumult in cities across the U.S., We Need Diverse Books has launched two initiatives to help amplify the voices of children’s book writers and illustrators. One is a program to provide financial assistance to diverse publishing industry professionals and creatives; the other initiative is designed to assist African-American emerging voices establish a foothold in the publishing world.
The first initiative, the Emergency Fund for Diverse Creatives in Children’s Publishing, was launched in April, as the pandemic caused bookstores to close and publishers to cancel author tours and postpone books. The fund was created to provide grants to traditionally published children’s book authors and illustrators, as well as to publishing professionals whose livelihoods have been significantly affected by the pandemic, “whether due to canceled school visits or furloughs and layoffs at publishers and literary agencies.”
According to WNDB founder and CEO Ellen Oh, the fund originally provided $500 grants, and the organization expected funds to be depleted by mid-May. However, WNDB received enough financial donations designated for that fund so that the maximum of individual grants has been increased to $1,000. The application requirements also have been loosened: authors and illustrators no longer have to provide proof of canceled school/library visits or canceled appearances at festivals. Now, applicants must simply demonstrate need due to loss of income.
To date, 19 grants, totaling $9,500, have been given out to applicants; WNDB has raised $20,000 and intends to continue soliciting donations to sustain the fund as long as needed.
Building on its established mentorship programs, WNDB also is developing a new mentorship program specifically for children’s writers and illustrators who are African-American. This new initiative, first proposed on Oh’s personal Twitter feed on Tuesday, will pair established authors and illustrators with unpublished mentees.
Disclosing that the killing of George Floyd, as well as other recent hate crimes against African-Americans, inspired this initiative, Oh emphasized WNDB’s commitment to shepherding through the publishing pipeline children’s books by and about people of color. “I sincerely believe that if we have good children’s books with good representation, we can do a lot to change white people’s perceptions regarding race,” she said. “We know that children’s books have that power: it becomes more imperative that we have positive representation by people who live that life. Without children’s books, one cannot get to empathy.”
During her interview with PW, Oh quoted an excerpt from a November 9, 1986 op-ed in the New York Times written by Walter Dean Myers: “If we continue to make black children nonpersons by excluding them from books and by degrading the black experience, and if we continue to neglect white children by not exposing them to any aspect of other racial and ethnic experiences in a meaningful way, we will have a next racial crisis.” She added, “That is what we are seeing now.”
Oh pointed out that the publishing industry can be “hard to break into and, if you don’t know it, difficult to navigate” at every stage in the process of getting one’s work published. “You need mentors. We need to do more and to do it faster.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Oh noted that a “lot of white authors want to help. Maybe that’s a good way for them to be an ally, by really helping black writers and illustrators. I wanted to do more than just WNDB’s mentor program. WNDB has always been about supporting the community of black writers and illustrators. This time, we’re taking advantage of people wanting to do something.”
By Wednesday afternoon, more than 400 authors of all genres and at all levels of experience had responded to the call to mentor emerging African-American voices; 50 others responded, wanting to be mentees. Those offering to be mentors include some big names in the kidlit world: Kelly Barnhill, William Alexander, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Sabaa Tahir, Gwenda Bond, Laurel Snyder, and Shannon Hale, among many others.
Even publishing industry professionals responded, including Mallory Grigg, an art director at Macmillan, who offered to mentor an illustrator, and Dominique Raccah, publisher of Sourcebooks, who offered the assistance of “a publisher, editors, or marketers,” as needed.