“Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”
By Brian Byrne, Editor | November 2018
“I think the ultimate mark of success is when diverse books have the freedom to be mediocre,” author Lamar Giles replied somewhat unexpectedly when asked to identify the best indicator of accomplishment for We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), the nonprofit organization he co-founded in 2014 to advocate for greater representation in children’s literature.
He continued, “Because, right now, I think when you see diverse creators break through, they have to be doubly excellent to get past the current gatekeepers, whereas if you’re looking at books that are done by white creators, there’s been room forever for there to be books that are ranging from great to no-so-great. With the diverse creators, I think you only get through if you’re anywhere from good to great, and I think the true indicator (of success for WNDB) is when there’s room for mediocrity.”
While there may still be progress to be made on that front, WNDB has undoubtedly made great strides in support of its mission in just a short time.
“…they’re not seeing themselves in books”
WNDB got its unofficial start on social media four years ago in response to an all-white, all-male panel of children’s authors at the BookCon annual fan convention. Sparked by author Ellen Oh, who would become the organization’s president and CEO, the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks quickly spread.
“We have all these children of different ethnicities, religions, sexualities and genders, and they’re not seeing themselves in books,” Giles said.
Representation in children’s literature had become a trending topic. Led by Oh, Giles and other writers and publishing professionals, WNDB filed for incorporation soon after and has since grown steadily in scope and impact.
“These kids deserve to have themselves be heroes in all sorts of stories; love stories, adventure, fantasy. And we try to make sure people understand that the reader base (for diverse books) is out there,” Giles said.
“…we’re putting books directly in a child’s hands”
WNDB’s extensive programming includes the annual Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Children’s Literature recognizing diverse books written by diverse authors; the OurStory App that highlights books with diverse content and by content creators from marginalized communities; and short story anthologies featuring both award-winning and unpublished diverse authors.
Perhaps Giles’ favorite program is WNDB in the Classroom, which provides free books and author visits to low-income schools around the country to help address the literacy gap. More than $75,000 worth of books have been donated to date.
“It’s a program I really enjoy, because we know that we’re putting books directly in a child’s hands,” Giles said.
Educators are encouraged to subscribe to the WNDB newsletter and follow WNDB on social media to stay informed on upcoming WNDB in the Classroom opportunities.
WNDB also awards supplemental grants to students from diverse backgrounds who’ve been selected for internships with a publisher or literary agency.
“If we can provide a little more comfort for these diverse interns, then hopefully they have a good summer, do good work and eventually get hired at one of these agencies or publishers. And those are essentially the gatekeepers; they’re the entities that decide what gets accepted in publishing,” Giles said.
The internship program has already seen great success, with many participants ultimately accepting full-time positions in the industry.
“By helping more diverse students become diverse professionals in the industry, we’re hoping we can have more people that can recognize quality diverse work and help shift the numbers in what gets accepted and published over the next decade,” Giles said.
What about an author who wants to write cross-culturally? WNDB has introduced a retreat to prepare these authors to tell “stories that are not their own with care, respect and sensitivity.” Participants explore a myriad of topics including representation and misrepresentation and prejudices and privileges, with the goal of working through “not only the how, but the when, and most importantly, the why and even why not of writing cross-culturally.”
Giles said the question of how to write diversely is one he’s asked a lot.
“If you’re looking to write a world with more diverse characters, I think part of it is observation. It’s one of those things where if you don’t live in a place that’s very diverse, you’re probably going to have to go somewhere to get that experience. What I want to remind people of is that you don’t have to force it either. We’re not saying that everyone needs to insert ‘this’ amount of diversity into their books, that’s not what we’re talking about at all.
“But if you choose to populate your book with more diverse characters, you do need to understand those cultures, those environments they come from. And if you don’t know those worlds, and you can’t get to know them, you can still write about your own world. No one’s saying that you can’t write about the experiences you’ve had, but if you choose to go into another person’s experiences, you need to really immerse yourself and be able to judge if you can do it respectfully or not,” he said.
“It’s been an incredible ride”
Those wishing to volunteer with WNDB can sign up on the website.
Looking back on the past four years, Giles is proud of the work WNDB has done to progress representation in children’s literature. However, he’s quick to note that they haven’t done it alone, specifically citing the advocacy of the late author Walter Dean Meyers – the namesake of the award – among other contributions.
“We’re not the only ones who are pushing for this sort of thing, and the changes we’re seeing are probably more of a group effort among several different factions working toward the same goal,” he said.
As for what lies ahead, Giles said he looks for WNDB to continue to evolve to best ensure that someday all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.
“We hope that we learn from the public what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, and get better at it,” he said. “…It’s been an incredible ride.”
Want to learn more about We Need Diverse Books? Watch the video: