The World Agrees: #WeNeedDiverseBooks Panel Recap

Thanks to the awesome Eunice Kim for recapping the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel for a Rich in Color guest post!

The #WNDB Panel (L-R): Ellen Oh, Marieke Nijkamp, Aisha Saeed, I.W. Gregorio, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Matt De La Pena, Grace Lin, and Jacqueline Woodson

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) Panel at Bookcon with my friend Kacie. When Bookcon officially announced the panel a few weeks back, Kacie, and I knew this would be the panel we wanted to attend the most. Kacie and I arrived to the panel room about a half an hour before the panel was scheduled to start to wait on line. Author Lamar Giles (author of FAKE ID) and other co-organizers generously passed out some cool freebies, including WNDB buttons, pins, and bookmarks during this time before doors opened. Next to the panel stage, there was an ongoing slideshow featuring photos from the WNDB campaign. By the time the panel started at 10 am, the room was soon packed with every available seat taken, and a ‘standing-room’ only section towards the back, where attendees stood against the back and side walls. Additional attendees were turned away when the room had reached its capacity.

The panel began with remarks by moderator I.W. Gregorio (author of NONE OF THE ABOVE) who gave a “virtual mic drop” for everyone who tweeted and submitted photos, but also for the overall love and support for the WNDB campaign. Gregorio then introduced key members of the WNDB team, including its founder Ellen Oh (author of the DRAGON KING CHRONICLES series), Aisha Saeed (author of WRITTEN IN THE STARS), Mike Jung (author of GIRLS, GEEKS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES), Marieke Nijkamp (founder of DiversifYA), and Lamar Giles. Special guest panelists included authors Matt de la Pena (THE LIVING), Grace Lin (WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON), and Jacqueline Woodson (BROWN GIRL DREAMING).

After panelist introductions, Aisha Saeed spoke generally about the campaign, and noted that despite changing demographics in the US, “children’s literature has remained anything but diverse.” Saeed specifically cited a recent study by the Children’s Cooperative Book Center (CCBC) documenting this lack of representation, noting that out of the 3,000 books used in the study and published in 2013, only 7.5% had any diversity. Saeed also emphasized the grassroots aspect of the campaign, noting that the hashtag alone garnered over 162 million Twitter impressions, and “while we [the WNDB team] many have organized this campaign, it was your [the audience] collective voices that made the world stop and listen.”

Next, Marieke Nijkamp of DiversifYA emphasized how “representation matters,” so “when our books don’t include [diverse] characters that our readers can relate to by shared experiences, shared backgrounds, and shared abilities, our books continually erase those characters. We teach readers that their stories and voices don’t matter. We teach them that they don’t matter.”

Ellen Oh discussed the next WNDB initiatives, and probably the most exciting among them included the current planning for the first Children’s Literature Diversity Festival to be held in Washington, D.C. in Summer 2016. Oh stated that this will be a “a festival where every panel, every event, will be to celebrate diversity in all of its glory.”

Gregorio then went on to ask specific questions for the panelists, and there were great anecdotes and answers. When the authors were asked ‘what was the first book that you read that reflected your diversity?” Giles discussed growing up, how “librarians kept trying to point me to books about slavery and black power,” but coming across Walter Dean Myers’ FALLEN ANGELS when he was 11 or 12, really instigated the first “spark.” However, it would take a few years later before Giles stumbled upon the type of work that he felt really represented him.

Matt De La Pena noted that he was a reluctant reader growing up, but Sandra Cisneros’ THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET and Junot Diaz’s DROWN proved to be instrumental books for him. On the other hand, Mike Jung recalls that growing up, he doesn’t recall “ever reading a book that reflected my ethnicity. Ever,” and subsequently thought about his kids (a three-year-old and seven-year-old) when writing GIRLS, GEEKS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES. Jung specifically noted that he “could have chosen to create a world that wasn’t racially or ethnically diverse, but I would have needed a reason for this, and I didn’t have a good, compelling reason not to make it diverse.” So, Jung wanted to create a daily reality that reflected not only his own daily reality, but also that of his children. Jacqueline Woodsen also highlighted the importance of dialogue when first coming across a book that reflected her diversity, with characters calling their mothers “mama.” This caused Woodsen to realize “what I’d missed until I saw it on the page, and then being hungry for it for the rest of my life.”

The panelists also emphasized that diverse reads aren’t just for marginalized readers, with De La Pena stating that “it’s incredibly powerful for the suburban white kid to read my books,” and Lin explaining that “we need to sell diverse books to people who don’t know that they need them.” Lin particularly touched upon her own background as a former bookseller in Cambridge, MA. During this time, when Lin would show a when book featuring a person of color to white customers, they would immediately reply, “Oh, that’s not for us,” but often without realizing why. Thus, Lin emphasized that it’s important that “we need to talk about diverse books differently,” citing that her Newbery winning fantasy novel, WHEN THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, as a fantasy adventure tale featuring a female heroine and a dragon, thus it should appeal to all readers, and not just Asian-Americans. Lin then cited her “Cheat Sheet For Selling Diversity” which is available on her blog.

The panel concluded after a quick Q&A session, but ultimately left on a positive note, and probably best by this quote by Jacqueline Woodson after she was asked what her vision for WNDB is next: “My biggest vision is that we don’t have to have this panel anymore…where ‘there is no ‘other.’ These books aren’t just for the people who look like us. They’re for all of us.” The panelists also commended the audience for their support, with Mike Jung pointing out that “Everyone here is speaking out and stepping up…and this is vital, necessary, and absolutely important to do so to effect change.”

After the panel, Kacie and I were also lucky enough to meet Ellen Oh, who kindly signed my copy of PROPHECY!

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My signed copy of PROPHECY!
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Some freebies I picked up!

Eunice Kim is a recent graduate of Sociology, but has always been, and will always be an avid bookworm at heart. She currently works as an Editorial Associate at Simon and Schuster. You can reach her at her tumblr!

6 Replies to “The World Agrees: #WeNeedDiverseBooks Panel Recap

  1. There are so many quotable sentences, my favorite
    “My biggest vision is that we don’t have to have this panel anymore…where ‘there is no ‘other.’ These books aren’t just for the people who look like us. They’re for all of us.” J. Woodson.

    The ‘cheat sheet,’ took me aback, but it is a change in perspective and a sales tactic. If it works, all the better for writers of color.Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. Yes, the “cheat sheet” is a good idea, and I’m planning, on my blog, to expand it to include diverse books not published by the major houses but still widely available in schools, libraries, and indie bookstores.

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