If you’re on Twitter, you may have noticed this hashtag popping up everywhere: #WeNeedDiverseBooks. If you’re anything like me you probably thought something along the lines of well, duh, and clicked it to see what it was about. The We Need Diverse Books Campaign has steadily started to take over in their three day call to action and I don’t think it will be long before more people begin to hear about it.
The campaign’s focus is on the lack of diversity in children’s literature and the dearth of initiative to do anything to change this.
Recently, there’s been a groundswell of discontent over the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The issue is being picked up by news outlets like these two pieces in the NYT, CNN, EW, and many more. But while we individually care about diversity, there is still a disconnect. BEA’s Bookcon recently announced an all-white-male panel of “luminaries of children’s literature,” and when we pointed out the lack of diversity, nothing changed.
It’s no secret that there has been a traditional standard in the media for what is and is not readily accepted. While we are starting to see a subtle shift in areas like television and cinema, literature has been one area that seems the slowest to change, with topics like gender, race, and sexual orientation being left on the fringes or often labeled and/or sold as niche writing.
You might recall an article from The Huffington Post last year, about author Maureen Johnson, and her Coverflip challenge. She submitted that books and their covers often carried a stigma and preconceived notions of what the cover should look like based on whether the author was a male or a female, and that each gender was sold a different package accordingly:
This idea that there are “girl books” and “boy books” and “chick lit” and “whatever is the guy equivalent of chick lit”* gives credit to absolutely no one, especially not the boys who will happily read stories by women, about women. As a lover of books and someone who supports readers and writers of both sexes, I would love a world in which books are freed from some of these constraints.
There are obvious deficits in not only children’s literature, but today’s literature as a whole. So why isn’t more being done to change it? I think the problem is partially because traditional publishers are hesitant to modify a structure that has served them well in the past. Honestly, how many YA storylines have you read that all seemed to be following the same formula? This is because editors and publishers know from experience that is what will sell the most books.
Yet the We Need Diverse Books campaign sheds light on a crucial fact that publishers shouldn’t ignore: There is more than one type of person in the world. Different people lead different lives, they have different experiences and acknowledging this fact leads to richer and fresher storytelling. There is a demand for diversity. Not acknowledging that is a slap in the face to our youth, much of whom never see someone they can identify with on bookshelves.
Maybe some authors are afraid to write differently or about something which they don’t have much first-hand experience. I know that I have the same anxiety over getting something wrong in my books that a reader might not forgive me for, but the way I look at is, write about people. Write about the human experience and make everything else secondary. Connect with your character as a person. When you don’t know, ask and research. Also, just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t make it wrong. Writing itself is the most terrifying, beautiful, risk and I think we would all do well to remember that.
Here are just a handful of examples of the reasons people are giving about why we need diverse books:
No matter what anyone tells you, write the book YOU want to write. You are YOU. We need YOUR book. To know YOU. #WeNeedDiverseBooks
— Ksenia Anske (@kseniaanske) May 1, 2014
When I was a kid I asked my Chinese mom if she ever wished she were pretty. All I knew of beauty was white princesses. #WeNeedDiverseBooks
— Kelly Loy Gilbert (@KellyLoyGilbert) May 2, 2014
#WeNeedDiverseBooks because people to need to know that they don’t struggle alone, and that we all have a tribe somewhere.
— TheBloggess (@TheBloggess) May 1, 2014
#WeNeedDiverseBooks bc white, cis, straight, middle-class, able-bodied folk are still seen as default, in fiction as in the life it mirrors.
— JudeOrlandoEnjolras (@ShyScholar) April 29, 2014
#weneeddiversebooks because disabled people do not need special powers or unusual insights to “make up” for our disabilities.
— Disability in Kidlit (@DisabilityInLit) May 1, 2014
— Mindy McGinnis (@MindyMcGinnis) May 2, 2014
This is a topic I could talk about forever and I’ve probably missed many of the points I wanted to make, but I hope you gained something from reading this. I look forward to when characters of all types grace the pages of fiction so frequently that it becomes the new standard. This campaign is only a single step in the right direction and if you take nothing else away from it, take the momentum. I hope the writing community continues where this campaign leaves off.