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In contrast to the culturally homogenous media landscape Americans encountered 50 years ago, today’s popular media presents a more colorful picture.
Despite the inclusive atmosphere we continue to foster in television and film, however, stories written by people of color and of different sexual orientations still haven’t managed to completely break through barriers in the book world. At a time when people of color and those in the LGBTQIA community are finally beginning to make major headway in pursuit of the freedom to share their stories and thoughts with the world, the publishing industry continues to exclude them.
We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), an organization that aims to address the lack of diversity in children’s books, works tirelessly toward their mission of advocating for disenfranchised writers and their viewpoints.
According to Hannah Gomez, Program Manager at WNDB, the organization defines diverse people as those who are limited by “marginalized identities” based on factors including “race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, gender, disability, and religion.”
The organization formed as a result of the mounting frustration present in the industry, which finally boiled over in response to an all-white author panel at BookCon in 2014.
“People were well aware of this issue [before BookCon], and we in the industry have been having conversations about this issue for years,” says Gomez, who believes that this particular incident mobilized people who previously noticed the problem but were reluctant to speak up against it.
A primary goal of the organization, Gomez says, lies in advocating for these authors and stories in children’s literature. A lot of marginalized children “don’t see people like them represented in books,” she explains.
The organization itself has made incredible strides, first going viral after the BookCon incident and then sparking conversation across social media with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which was quickly picked up by both writers and readers.
The industry still has quite a lot of growing to do, however, first in shifting its views on these kinds of stories and writers.
“A diverse book is a book, plain and simple,” says Gomez. “It’s a book that includes characters, situations, and influences from an array of perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds.”
The system continues functioning in a way that fails to encourage the publication and purchase of these books, justifying this lack of growth by citing a lack of demand.
Demand certainly drives much of what is produced in the book world, but this system in particular tells two stories.
“I don’t think that mainstream white audiences are picking up diverse books that feature what they consider irregularities,” says Michael Mejias, of the Writers House Literary Agency in New York City. “But amongst the much smaller communities of diverse people, we are seeing growth in the purchase of these types of books.”
Noting the saturation of diverse stories that has slowly begun taking place in television and film, Mejias is hopeful that this will soon bleed over into books.
“Those are the two narratives present, but the bigger truth remains that we don’t know if the general population of readers specifically wants diverse books, because we’ve never been in a position to saturate the market with them,” he explains.
Mejias works exclusively with diverse authors, and believes that the industry needs to begin reflecting the America he sees: the one that includes him, and the people who look like him.
Like Mejias, WNDB works tirelessly in the name of the people who don’t see themselves as properly represented in books.
“The market itself is diverse,” Gomez says, “and everything from social media to classroom discussions indicate that kids of all backgrounds want books that depict non-majority identities and experiences.”
According to Gomez, the children who fail to discover characters and stories with whom they identify experience lower self-esteem, lower ambition, and less academic success.
WNDB targets these children specifically, believing the key to eventual change in the market lies within educating younger generations. They hope to spread the idea that all stories are important in the development of our shared history.
Mejias thinks targeting the children’s book sector as the agent of change in the industry makes sense because younger readers are more accepting and open than their “stiffer” adult counterparts.
“As children,” he says, “we’re at our most progressive and liberal.”
Like Gomez and Mejias, Matthew Poulter of the Children’s Book Council (CBC) and the Every Child a Reader program stresses that children’s book publishers have a “unique responsibility” to “instill a lifelong love of reading” in young people.
“The books we read as children can profoundly impact the way we view the world,” says Poulter. That means that it’s equally important to “provide a mirror” through which they can see themselves as it is to expose readers to stories and situations they don’t see in their own lives.
And while some of these books don’t always find their audience or sell widely, the growth of sales in diverse books and the increase in circulation of these stories shows that a high demand does currently exist.
Poulter explains that children and teens will insist on being given access to great stories and understand “better than adults” that anyone can write one, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, disability, or socioeconomic background.
“Ultimately,” says Poulter, “our books should be reflective and representative of the complex world we live in.”
WNDB, along with CBC’s Diversity Initiative, encourages community bookstores, schools, and libraries to introduce diverse stories into their resources. If they don’t already advocate for these books, Poulter suggests readers and customers inform them that the community is “interested in and willing to support diverse books.”
To accomplish this goal, readers and writers must continue sharing stories that uplift and provide a safe haven for all people.
“And when you find a story or author you love,” Poulter adds, “tell everyone. Despite all the marketing, publicity, and hand-selling that goes into the launch of every book, the majority of consumers purchase based on word of mouth.”
This is why WNDB succeeded so spectacularly in launching their wide-scale approach to advocating for the presence of diverse books in children’s literature, and why the industry is finally beginning to move in a direction that reflects the America it services.