We Need Diverse Books: The Book Con-troversy

by Meghan Drummond
published in Community

BookExpo America is an exciting event that brings together industry professionals, book bloggers and reading fanatics to discuss what the next big thing will be in publishing. While it’s a wonderful weekend, it’s not as welcoming to casual readers as some other conventions. Which is why Bookcon was introduced. For a greatly reduced price, book fans could come for Saturday only to meet authors like John Green. A Young Adult panel was announced that would feature Jeff Kinney, Rick Riordan, Lemony Snicket, and James Patterson.

If you noticed something wrong with that list, you aren’t the only one. Despite the diverse range of authors currently producing work and being read, the list, especially for young adult authors, was decidedly whitewashed, heteronormative, and male.  While all of these authors are fantastic, a panel should feature a diverse array of voices and opinions.  This announcement followed a series of small strikes back and forth. Walter Dean Myers wrote an exceptional article calling attention to a lack of diversity in children’s books, an article that called attention to some of the truths everyone who has been in a bookstore knows.

An Obvious Problem

Just to put some numbers to the lack of diversity in children’s books: In 2013, out of the young adult books published, 21.9 percent featured characters of color.  4.9 percent featured characters that identified as LGBTQ. It’s worth noting that both of those numbers have improved substantially since 2011. Only 2.9 percent had disabilities, including learning disabilities.  This is not representative of the world that we live in, and erases the existence of many families.

Presented with this information and the panel at BookCon, Ellen Oh created the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, a place to discuss the need imgresfor a greater variety of texts. Over the course of several days, readers, authors, educators and librarians tweeted about the reasons why diverse books needed to be on shelves. This push prompted the creation of an additional panel in BookCon lineup, featuring a panel of authors from a variety of backgrounds discussing the need for diversity and what readers can do to make this goal a reality. We Need Diverse Books blew up quickly, and now is a large team.

A Unique Solution

The We Need Diverse Books panel was by far one of my favorites.  With amazing authors, passionate speakers, and an audience on the edge of its seat, the panel was in turns lighthearted and heavy hitting. Despite the continued insistence by many in the industry that there is no ‘push’ for diverse books and that they ‘don’t sell well,’ the room was standing room only, with some being turned away at the door.

The speakers emphasized that this isn’t an either-or debate, but rather an ‘and’ debate. There’s room at the table for every voice, and advocating for diversity doesn’t need to come at the expense of other great titles. Likewise, the speakers reminded the audience that multicultural isn’t actually a genre, and books with diverse casts held appeal for all audiences. Indeed, Matt de la Pena discussed the joy of hearing from readers who connected with his protagonist through a mutually shared love of basketball. Grace Lin shared the joy of seeing a character like yourself in a book, a joy many readers are currently missing. The power of the speakers truly can’t be summarized easily, instead here is a link to the unedited audio from the panel. http://tmblr.co/ZWNYhn1HaZzne . Thanks to the We Need Diverse Books team,  an important conversation has been started, one that we’ve been dancing around for entirely too long.

Looking to the Future

If 50% of children are non-white, if 10% will identify as LGBTQ, and if one in three will experience a mental illness, why are these realities being erased? Less than ten percent of books featured diverse main characters, and this harms everyone. Every reader needs two things from books. They need a window into the lives of people who are not like themselves, and they need a mirror that lets them see themselves in a book and know they’re not alone.

So, what’s next? The first ever Diversity Festival will be held in Washington D.C. in 2016.  You can follow the We Need Diverse Books campaign on Twitter and on Tumblr for up to date information, and some truly inspiring personal stories.

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Meghan-ThumbnailMeghan Drummond graduated from Virginia Tech, and is currently an MFA student at The New School, the curriculum coordinator for DIY MFA, and a young adult writer.

  • Meghan, thanks for taking the time to write about this. When I read the names for the original YA panel I sucked in my breath. Yikes! Feels like there was zero attempt at diversity there, “whitewashed, heteronormative, and male” is a good description! But the events that followed are affecting positive change. Movements like this–and I also think of the VIDA organization’s yearly count–are good ones. We need them. Kids especially need windows and mirrors. Nicely put.

    I really enjoyed this article, I’d love to read more news-style articles like this one on DIY MFA.

    • Meghan Drummond

      Thank you, Danielle!
      I agree that the movement was really needed, and I respect their positivity so much. They’re really trying to make a change by adding something instead of taking away, and I admire that.

  • Lauren

    Great article, I have yet to read a YA book that represented me and where I grew up. I was always saddened by the lack of diversity in YA fiction. I’m glad that some strides are being made to make it more representative of the world then what has been published lately. I still waiting on the fantasy YA book set in the South Bronx to be written and published.

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