“When I was little, my mom used to tell me this story about an old frog that had lived all his life in a well. He believed that the whole world was the beautiful darkness that surrounded him and that the sky was a circle that brought light, darkness and rain from above. Until one day a new frog fell into the well and tried to tell the old frog about the real world. But the old frog could not accept his words because they were not his reality. And whenever I come across someone who dismisses the need for diversity, I can’t help but think of this story and that old frog.”
Author Ellen Oh knows two things very well: stories and diversity. An Asian-American author who has penned the beautiful Prophecy series, she strives to represent more than the stereotypical pretty white girl in each of her books. She has spoken out for diverse representation since the moment she became an author – and probably long before.
Thanks to this, Oh regularly travels, giving school presentations and meeting young readers. Talking to young readers and aspiring young writers who do not fit the stereotypical model that society deems normal inspires her to keep going.
“At one particular presentation, I noticed a young black girl hanging back. She was so sweet and shy and held a worn notebook in her hand. When the last of the kids moved away, she approached me and handed me her notebook, apologizing for not being able to buy my book. She asked me if I wouldn’t mind signing her notebook, which turned out to be filled with her own poetry and short stories. I told her I was so glad to meet a young writer! And she gave me this huge smile and said ‘I love writing and I want to be a writer but I didn’t think I could because I’m not white.’ I was surprised and asked her if she’d read any books by Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, or Linda Sue Park. She nodded and shrugged her shoulder and said, ‘But I’ve never seen them in person.’ I still get a bit teary thinking about her. She’d never met an author of color so in her mind, she couldn’t be one either. And it makes me wonder how many other kids are out there just like her,” said Oh.
It is no surprise that #WeNeedDiverseBooks is her brainchild. The online campaign, spread out over three days, focused primarily on tweeting with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks about why publishing houses and readers need diverse books. Though Oh spearheaded the campaign, she had an entire team behind her: Aisha Saeed, author of the upcoming Written In The Stars; Chelsea Pitcher, author of The S-Word and The Last Changeling; Grace Hwang Lynch, blogger at HapaMama; Hannah Ehrilick, director of marketing and publicity at Lee&Low Books; Ilene W. Gregorio, author of the upcoming None Of The Above; Jessica Verdi, author of My Life After Now and The Summer I Wasn’t Me; Karen Sandler, author of the Tankborn trilogy; our very own Hebah Uddin; Lamar Giles, author of Fake ID; Marieke Nijkamp, blogger at YA Misfits; Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind; Megan O’Sullivan, owner of Braun Books; Mike Jung, author of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities; Miranda Paul, author of numerous children’s picture books; our very own Natasha M. Heck; Rebecca Albertalli, author of the upcoming Simon v. the Homo Sapiens Agenda; S.E. Sinkhorn, blogger at Maybe Genius; S.K. Falls, author of the Fevered Souls series; Stacey Lee, author of the upcoming Golden Boys; Stacy Whitman, publisher of Tu Books; and Tracy López, blogger at Latinaish.
“It’s astounding to me when people say it’s not really an issue. I can only imagine they don’t understand because they haven’t experienced the invisibility one can feel when they never see themselves reflected back at them in print,” said Aisha Saeed.
Though the team may seem huge, it paid off. Each member played a vital part in getting the word out and encouraging participation. Before the official campaign had begun, #WeNeedDiverseBooks took off like wildfire across the plains of the Twitter. Thousands upon thousands of supportive Tweets poured in. People uninvolved in the creation of the campaign made Facebook events to invite their friends to join in. One of Jessica Verdi’s friends, unaware that she helped organize the event, invited her to join on Facebook. It was Verdi’s first hint that the campaign would reach farther than they ever expected.
“What it all comes down to is that this campaign is bringing people together in a united cause. The force behind #WeNeedDiverseBooks is as diverse as the books we’re campaigning for themselves. And that’s already a victory,” said Verdi.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks focuses on expanding from the character considered most traditional and most relatable: the middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, able bodied white protagonist. The team and those participate campaign for more characters of color, more disabled characters, more and more and more characters that do not normally take up the spotlight. Less than 10% of narrators in books – all books, not just young adult books – are characters of color. Even less are characters that fall into the category of LGBTQIA+, characters with disabilities, characters of various non-Christian religions, and characters of varying weights and sizes.
“When you think about kids reading books, think about what it would be like to never find a book that had a character like you in it. I think it’s harder to understand for people who’ve grown up with representation in books — they don’t really know how it feels to not be represented, to look and look and never see themselves reflected in media, year after year. But a lack of representation in books affects how kids see themselves, and it affects how others treat them. When straight, white, cis-gendered kids are seen as the norm, everyone else gets pushed into the category of “other,” which is pretty ridiculous. We need to be telling and supporting everyone’s stories, to celebrate differences, yes, but also to show how much we have in common,” said Chelsea Pitcher.
The official campaign launched on May 1st at 1pm, where participants took photos with signs explaining why they needed diverse books. On May 2nd, they organized a Twitter chat using the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag to discuss diversity in literature and why it matters so much. On May 3rd, they asked participants to put their money where their mouths were and buy diverse books. Called “Diversify Your Shelves,” day three of the campaign focused on discussing and buying diverse books that already existed.
“There’s power in numbers. If enough people, across all walks of life, are motivated to demand more diversity in the kidlit world, the market will have no choice but to answer accordingly. And once the ball gets moving, and we start to see more diverse authors and main characters, my hope is that it will become the norm. Trends come and go, but diverse and accurate representation of all groups is a responsibility, not a fad,” said Verdi.
Though the idea had stirred in the minds of many team members, it launched officially after the recent BookCon controversy, where the original line-up of authors did not feature a single author of color in the entire event. Though they have added at least one author of color to the event after much protest, and have pledged to create a more diverse event, it was too-little too-late for the team. #WeNeedDiverseBooks hit the Internet partly to showcase the importance of diversity to the BookCon team – and partly to showcase the importance of diversity to the rest of the publishing world.
“Our hope is to show the publishing community how supportive we are of diverse books by diverse authors. We want editors and agents to know. We want conference organizers to know. The good news is, there are readers, writers, reviewers, agents and editors working to make better representation happen. The bad news is, it’s not enough. I know it’s not enough. That’s why conversations like this are so important, and why we need to keep showing people that we want more representation, not just today, not just for a week, or a month, but forever,” said Pitcher.
For those interested in adding diversity to their shelves, #WeNeedDiverseBooks has made it quite easy – scanning the tag on Twitter and Tumblr will bring up dozens of resources and book suggestions. Websites like Diversity in YA and Disability in Kidlit compile lists of diverse reads. Politely contacting publishing houses about more diverse stories is encouraged by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team, as is going to your local or school library and requesting they order more books.
“It’s always good to remind people that more books, and universal access to those books, can never be a bad thing. You never know what story is going to really resonate with you, or help you understand what someone else’s life might be like,” said Verdi.
Of course, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team recommend one thing above the rest: if you do not see yourself in a fictional world, create your own.
“Make your own reflection! Write that book you want to read, that movie you want to see, write that music you want to hear. That’s what I did. I couldn’t find any Asian girl heroes so I wrote one myself. I wrote the book that I would have wanted to read when I was young and the book I was proud to hand over to my daughters. I believe that the world is a better place when we can share our diverse stories,” said Oh.
“Who knows,” said Verdi, “maybe you’ll be the next big voice in kidlit!”
Special thanks to Dumbledore’s Army of New Paltz for partnering up with YA Interrobang and participating in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.