The movement to increase diversity in children’s books is on.
As a community, it’s taken us too long to get here, but today, our industry is at last engaged in an ongoing conversation to ensure that the lives of all young people are reflected and honored in their literature. Such diversity, which includes people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities, serves not just to mirror our readers’ lives, but to offer all young people a window into the many experiences that make us human. What could be more important?
That we have recognized the urgent need for more diversity is a crucial first step. But it’s just a first step. We can’t sit back and congratulate ourselves when there is so much to be done to implement our goal. We need to expand the universe of diverse authors, illustrators and editors, and create more opportunities for them. We need to assess what each of us can do to help the effort. For some of us, that will be primarily a support role, helping to change and elevate the diversity conversation. Others may choose to study how to write cross-culturally with responsibility and authenticity. We need to learn how to make diverse books successful in the marketplace. Author Andrea Pinkney, who founded the Jump at the Sun Imprint at Disney, says, "Right now, the publishing industry has an auspicious opportunity to redefine the success model for diverse books. Let’s consider success as more than just sales figures, but include how well a book impacts a community or addresses a timely issue. Let’s look at a book’s entire life and achievement, not just immediate sales figures.”
Your membership in the SCBWI automatically puts you at the heart of this conversation. As an organization, we have been at the forefront of supporting diversity efforts, by offering grants that celebrate diverse authors and illustrators, establishing partnerships with organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and The Children’s Book Council Diversity Board, and by populating our conferences and Board with talented people from diverse backgrounds. But as individuals we can all do more.
I’ve surveyed many of our industry leaders and asked them what each of us can do to promote diversity. Here are a baker’s dozen of concrete and specific suggestions.
1. Offer support to aspiring writers and illustrators from diverse backgrounds. (I.W. Gregorio, VP Development, We Need Diverse Books)
2. If you are judging a contest or award, look for diverse stories that can open up opportunities for writers and illustrators not to feel pigeonholed. (Jenn Baker, VP Social Media/Diversity Festival, We Need Diverse Books)
3. Politely point out to organizers of book fairs, festivals and panels when their participants are overwhelmingly white or male or abled or straight. (I.W. Gregorio)
4. If you are planning any kind of book event, do not ask diverse authors to appear only in presentations focused on diversity. (Hannah Ehrlich, Director of Marketing, LEE & LOW BOOKS)
5. If you are a bookseller, teacher or librarian, do not pigeonhole diverse books by bringing them out only for “themed months” or holidays. All displays should have a diverse component. (Hannah Ehrlich)
6. In your conversations with peers and the public about diversity, shift the paradigm from “the difficulties and challenges” of selling diverse books to a positive focus, emphasizing the opportunity to redefine the success model. (Andrea Pinkney, author)
7. Be active on social media about this issue. Follow authors, agents, publishers, librarians and teachers who are succeeding in moving the diversity needle. (Andrea Pinkney)
8. Make a conscious, strategic decision to buy and/or support more diverse books, and do it in a sustained fashion. Be conscious of supporting books whose covers represent diverse content and characters. We need to give diversity a face. The more we show diversity, the more it becomes the norm. (Andrea Pinkney)
9. Talk about diverse books (on social media and elsewhere) when they resonate with you. Passionate word of mouth is the best bookseller! (SCBWI)
10. When you are visiting schools, libraries and kids, talk about more than your own books. Promote a diverse reading list. We are all book-talkers and your positive talk helps get these books into the hands of readers. (SCBWI)
11. If you are a diverse author or illustrator, get on the road and make your books visible. Your presence can help win fans across the spectrum of diversity. (Justin Chanda, VP and Publisher, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers)
12. If you chose to integrate diversity into your own writing and illustrating work, do it in an authentic, respectful, accurate manner. Research needs to be done, experts consulted, text and illustrations vetted. This is especially critical if you are choosing to work cross-culturally. (Louise May, Editorial Director, LEE & LOW BOOKS)
There is much still to be done to establish true diversity in children’s books. As with any important task, it may seem overwhelming to us, and the tendency is to leave it in the hands of decision makers and policy setters. But nothing is farther from the truth. As one of my heroes, the Dalai Lama, once said…“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Let’s each one of us be the mosquito! —L.O.