We Need Diverse Books, the grassroots organization that emerged out of last year’s controversy regarding BookCon’s initially monochromatic author lineup, marked its first anniversary with its founder and others affiliated with the organization updating an audience of about 100 on current projects before launching into a more philosophical discussion of the importance of publishing and making diverse books available to readers.
“We started because of here,” said Ellen Oh, the group’s founder and president as she introduced her fellow author-panelists at Friday afternoon’s session: Lamar Giles, Linda Sue Park, Matt de la Pena, and Tim Federle.
Giles presented an update on the Walter Dean Myers Award for an established writer and grants for emerging writers. “We want to raise awareness of diverse books and encourage publishers to publish diverse books,” he said, disclosing that he himself was able to pursue his dream of writing books only after receiving a grant nine years ago.
“I am so excited about [WNDB’s] internship program I can hardly talk,” Park said. WNDB will pay $2,500 to each of five interns the first year of the program. She reported that the WNDB internship program committee is currently examining applications and will announce its initial group of interns later this fall.
The panelists presented a strong case to a diverse audience on why bookstores and libraries should commit to stocking diverse books.
“Choice and variety: that’s what diversity is about,” Park said. “That translates into sales.”
De la Pena added that multicultural books should not replace the classics or more mainstream books, but, rather, should be read as well.
Federle, who says that he realized in seventh grade that he was gay, said that he didn’t set out to write a diverse book when he wrote Better Nate Than Never, but he ended up writing the book “that only [he] could write.” Mentioning just a few of the readers who contacted him, telling him of the impact of his book about a gay pre-teen on them, Federle pointed out that children’s books aren’t just for children: they are books that touch parents, teachers, and others.
“You can change lives with children’s books,” Federle said. Books that expose children to characters who might live different lives from their own, he said, makes readers more empathetic "from the ground up."
Addressing the booksellers and librarians in the audience, Federle said, “You are the gatekeepers we are talking to: if kids don’t get the books authors are writing, we’re not changing lives.” Added Oh, “Your job is pushing these books as hard as you can; don’t stop.” Giles urged booksellers, especially, to “don’t just be open to new voices: tell everyone you know about them. It doesn’t do any good if you find this new voice and keep it to yourself.”
All five panelists agreed that there’s been a seismic shift in the past year in the industry's attitude towards multicultural books, with more diverse books than ever winning prestigious awards and making it onto bestseller lists.
“The power of numbers: that’s where it’s going to happen,” Federle noted, “The minute we have a Harry Potter-scale book featuring a diverse character, that’ll be the game changer and there’ll be no looking back.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Children's Book Council is helping to fund WNDB's internship program; it is not. WNDB is fully funding its awards to interns. CBC is partnering with WNDB in a mentoring capacity.