BookCon Panel Highlights Need for Diverse Books

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During the inaugural BookCon, on Saturday, May 31, nine speakers took to the stage during the panel “The World Agrees: #WeNeedDiverseBooks” to discuss the absence of diverse characters in modern literature and the role booksellers can take in the movement that sparked the creation of the We Need Diverse Books organization.

Grown out of the widespread reaction to the April announcement of a predominantly white, male lineup of speakers for BookCon, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag called on the public, authors, and book industry professionals to show their support for and interest in reading diverse literature. Ellen Oh, who initiated the campaign and founded We Need Diverse Books, told attendees, “Let’s be calling it what it really is: this is a call to arms.”

We Need Diverse Books team members I.W. Gregorio, Aisha Saeed, and Marieke Nijkamp were joined on the panel by Lamar Giles (Fake ID, Amistad), Mike Jung (Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, Arthur A. Levine Books), Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), Matt de la Peña (The Living, Delacorte), and Jacqueline Woodson (Beneath a Meth Moon, Speak) for a discussion about their experiences with the lack of diverse titles while growing up and how to get more readers interested in diverse literature.

“In terms of being the child of Korean immigrants living in a predominantly white community and facing issues of assimilation and alienation, I don’t recall ever reading a book that reflected that. Ever,” said Jung. “And I can only speculate on what reading such a book would have meant to me at the time.”

Peña, who was raised by young parents and without a role model of an active reader, told the packed audience, “I just believed that books weren’t for me.” Peña now works with disadvantaged youth in schools, where he sees kids without reading role models all over the country. “It’s also incredibly powerful for the suburban white kid to read these [diverse] stories,” he said, as they can open new worlds to them and bring home a deeper understanding of other cultures.

Countering the common perception that diverse books don’t do well in the general trade market, Woodson questioned, “What is a diverse book? I think that’s the first problem — that we’re trying to market the books as issue-based books. These are stories.”

Lin, who briefly worked as a bookseller at Curious George & Friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that she encountered many customers who rejected books she was handselling because they featured people of color on the cover. “It was so fast that I don’t think they ever registered why they knew that that book wasn’t for them,” said Lin. “A lot of these people, they don’t really even realize why they’re saying no.”

To that end, Lin has created a cheat sheet for selling diverse titles, which can be found here. Instead of pitching Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as a story featuring a Chinese girl and Chinese folktales, talk about the adventure in the story, said Lin. “If a bookseller or somebody could gently prod them to look at these books in a different way, I think a lot of them would be open to buying what we call a diverse book.”

When customers visit bookstores, said Lin, they already have book genres and categories compartmentalized in their minds and will often place a diverse title into a multicultural box that holds little appeal to them. “As a bookseller, or any of you who recommend books, our job, our challenge, is to make them take that book out of that multicultural box and put it in a box that they are interested in,” said Lin.

To help grow the campaign, We Need Diverse books will be partnering with both the National Education Association’s Read Across America program and First Book to ensure stronger distribution of titles written by diverse authors or featuring diverse characters. Through the new Diversity in the Classroom program, diverse authors’ books will be brought to schools around the country and children will have the opportunity to meet the authors via Skype or in person.

The We Need Diverse Books team is also in the process of developing a festival, to be held in Washington, D.C., in 2016, that will highlight diverse authors in the realm of picture books, middle grade, and young adult literature. “Every panel and event will be a celebration of diversity in all its glory,” said Oh.

We Need Diverse Books can be followed on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

See also this week’s BTW article “Booksellers Welcome Campaign to Promote Diverse Books” to learn more.