Organized as part of the Gaithersburg Book Festival, the online panel “How Diverse Books Can Open Minds and Change the World,” held June 24, brought together three highly regarded authors (and moderator), all notable for popular works for young readers as well as for their eloquent and passionate support of the diverse books movement.
Moderated by Wade Hudson, president and CEO of multicultural children’s book publisher Just Us Books and an acclaimed author himself, the panelists responded to Hudson’s questions about the books that influenced them, why they write for kids, and what they hope their books will accomplish. And later in the panel, novelist Dhonielle Clayton, author of the book Pretty Little Things and The Belles, as well as COO of We Need Diverse Books, gave a grim account of the backlash of hate, personal threats and online harassment she endured simply for “asking that little brown people appear in books” during and after the 2014 launch of WNDB.
Pakistani American middle grade writer Hena Khan, author of Amina’s Voice and More to the Story, described growing up in an American Muslim family, her love of the library, and wanting to read stories about “how other people lived.” She read books by such popular authors as Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but it seemed to her as a child that stories about her life as a Pakistani American “didn’t matter.” She noted that as a child she even produced a family newsletter, “but looking back at my old kid writing, I left out all the details of my life, the things that made me different, the food, the language, the clothes.”
She described becoming a writer as “an accident”—she was a journalist and was invited by a friend at Scholastic to work on a project—and said that becoming a mother also made her want to write for children. “The confusion around the Muslim community made we want to do something to make my child accepted and understood.”
Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grimm and the Newbery Honor book The Inquistor's Tale, grew up in Baltimore in “a white enclave” and as a child “I knew that races were kept apart.” The deed for his parent’s house, he recalled, even had a restrictive covenant that prohibited selling the house to Black people. Throughout the event, Gidwitz was honest and open about the need for white people to move beyond their all-white enclaves. And he spoke about the impact of diverse books on his development, all while examining his own privilege as a white author in an industry all to often only focused on white readers.
“As a white male writer I can write almost anything I want. It’s a freedom that most writers don’t have, especially writers of color,” he said.
Clayton, a former children’s librarian and teacher, was quick to cite the influence and impact of Hudson, a pioneering advocate for multicultural literature and a prolific children’s author, and the influence of his books on her life as a young reader. “I was blessed that I had your books filled with characters that looked like me,” she said.
While growing up she read the popular white authors, but she also read African American authors such as Mildred Taylor. But Black authors, Clayton said, weren’t taught in most school classes: “Black stories were put in silos and were only for Black students. I wanted these books to be read by everybody. It made me angry and it fuels the work that I do today for We Need Diverse Books,” Clayton said.
Indeed, Clayton spoke of her work with WNDB cofounder author Ellen Oh launching the diverse books movement (as well as Cake, a literary agency Clayton founded for diverse authors), and the backlash she suffered from advocating for writers of color, and for her work as a sensitivity reader. “I received death and rape threats; I was doxed by white supremacists, I was sent bananas and for months I had to have a security detail,” she said. “All just for asking that children be able to see themselves in books. I guess being a woman of color, I was just asking for too much. But I’ll take the lumps.”
A former teacher and librarian, she laughed and described herself as a “book bully who told people what to read,” as she grew into her work as a writer and an advocate. “I wanted to see Black kids in stories, stories about saving the world,” she said. “I want to see joyful high concept stories with Black kids in them that explore mystery, magic and love, and not just the burden of Blackness.”
“I want kids to know that a Black woman created this book so they know that they can do it too and make a living doing it. Like Octavia Butler’s books did for me,” Clayton said.