We Need Diverse Books talk books, plans at BookExpo America


On the last day of BookExpo America – publishing industry’s largest annual conference, which ran from this year from May 27 to May 29 – there was a lot of scheduling confusion. Attendees rushed from book drops to overflowing signing lines. However, in the midst of all the madness, the promise of a We Need Diverse Books panel led to a nearly full meeting room and fifty minute reminder on why the organization matters.

Ellen Oh, founder and president of the grassroots organization and author of Prophecy, expressed amazement at the fact that it has only been a year since the very first We Need Diverse Books panel was hastily added to BookExpo America’s sister event for the public, BookCon, after weeks of criticism over a strongly white line-up and a trending hashtag bursting at the seams with messages of support.

That support and excitement was still palpable in the air of one of the Javits center meeting rooms. After a few awkward moments where an attendee felt the need to clap, but was embarrassed to be the only one, Oh exclaimed, “Go on and clap if you want to! We need this enthusiasm. We need this reminder that this is so important!”

After that, the applause and laughter came frequently and freely.

Matt de la Pena, a member of We Need Diverse Books’ advisory board and author of The Hunted, remarked that he felt the movement had become “cohesive” when he was in Los Angeles last year, recording his clip for the video that accompanied the successful IndieGoGo campaign. (The video also included New York Times bestselling authors Marie Lu and John Green.) According to la Pena, being part of that video and seeing the enthusiasm from such important luminaries made him realize that We Need Diverse Books had settled its roots into the industry and would not be shaken.

Unlike last year’s panel, the mission was not to appeal to the choir: loyal supporters, creators and readers who readily turned out, wore buttons and petitioned their favorite authors to add their voices to the cause.

The next step forward for We Need Diverse Books, according to Oh and the panelists, is to encourage diversity within the industry itself, and open the minds and hearts of gatekeepers for change. Oh noted that books save lives. However, Linda Sue Park (author of A Single Shard) also continuously pointed out the fact that, though diverse books are wonderful and educating, they are not enough on their own.

Park herself is the honorary head of We Need Diverse Books’ new internship program, designed to support diverse publishing interns and augment paid internships. She has a notable and strong conviction that diversifying the industry will lead to more diverse projects being accepted and pushed forward by gatekeepers.

She garnered appreciative chuckles from the audience when she exclaimed, “If you won’t do it because it’s the right thing, do it because it’s good business!”

Those chuckles turned to full-blown laughter later on when she presented the example of Dora the Explorer, an openly brown-skinned character of color on Nickelodeon whose merchandise and show are still widely accepted and given to children of all ages.

“I thought to myself, ‘We’re book people! We’re smarter than TV people!’” laughed Park along with the audience. “And TV got Dora the Explorer going. We can do this. We can support creators.”

Lamar Giles, author of Fake ID as well as a panelist and a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, added, “Raising awareness is one of our top priorities, via awards, grants, outreach and mentorship.”

Though the panel’s focal point was not the creators themselves, panelist and author Tim Federle still offered encouragement through his story of not actually intending to write a diverse book with Better Nate Than Never.

“My agent, Brenda Bowen, gave me an important piece of advice,” he told his avid listeners. “She told me to write the story that only you can write.”

However, along with inspiration, Federle’s presence on the panel also served as an example of the pushback that We Need Diverse Books has still witnessed in spite of the movement’s acceptance. Not every gatekeeper in the industry has been entirely won over by the idea of a story for every child – and both Federle and Matt de la Pena, particularly in regards to his title Mexican White Boy.

Though a middle grade novel – or especially because it is a middle grade novel – Better Nate Than Never is one of many diverse books that have been pulled, challenged or banned in school and library systems. Even Federle’s local school district cancelled his school visit two days before his debut. “There are some days you are a fighter, and some days you just need a hug. Some days, you just have to cuddle up with the people that believe in you,” said Federle on challenges to his books.

(For those wondering how he responded to that cancellation so close to home: a certain school district may or may not have received an e-mail remarking on the fact that he’d just become a New York Times bestselling author.)

Oh used the discussion to segue in a mention of the We Need Diverse Books’ highly anticipated shelftalking kits, with a shout-out to team member I.W. Gregorio (author of None of the Above) for working closely on the kits and the tools included with it. Shelftalking is a verbed form of the word shelftalkers, which are tags created by booksellers to put on their shelves and promote their favorite books.

“These kits are meant to give a way to talk about books without falling on those terms like ‘issue book’ or ‘diverse title’,” explained Oh. “It gives booksellers and librarians a chance to talk about these titles in a way that everyone will enjoy.”

la Pena added that there’s a need to be “subversive.” He suggested pushing forward diverse titles on award committees and selling titles based on the story first, and then letting the diverse aspect be discovered later.

The mood became sober as Oh took the conversation towards reasons why it is so important to promote and distribute diverse books. She remarked on the reactions to The Hunger Games casting scandal. When Rue was cast as a young African-American actress, it brought particular attention to the fact that particularly racist tweets were sent out from teenage accounts – despite Rue being canonically black in the books.

“A lack of empathy starts young,” Oh emphasized.

Giles added to the discussion by bringing up a documentary he’d watched recently, featuring a prom in Georgia that was about to be integrated after years of segregation – long after the famous Brown v. Board of Education case. He was particularly fixated on a man who reasoned that his grandmother taught him “a red bird and a blue bird shouldn’t be together,” and added that same logic to the idea of black kids and white kids going to prom together.

Federle also pointed out, “It is really hard to hate someone you’ve gotten to know.” Diverse books bridge gaps that ignorant adults can exploit to introduce that hate.

The success of being a draw for BookCon this year is not enough for the We Need Diverse Books team. The name of the game is integration, all throughout the system, and according to Park, publishers and booksellers are the new frontier to make change happen. “We need to diversify every layer we can,” she said in her closing remarks.

“Creators, teachers, booksellers, teachers and librarians. If diversity is important to publishers, they have to do the work. Go out and find diverse candidates.”

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About Author

Hebah Uddin

Hebah is a 21-year-old Muslim girl who reads a lot of books, writes a lot more, and wears a lot of (figurative) hats. As a result of being raised on a steady diet of foreign films and BBC period dramas, she now likes to think of herself as Charlotte Bronte + one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai women. She’ll rap your fingers with her katana if you don’t mind your manners - or your grammar.

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