On BookCon and #WeNeedDiverseBooks

We Need Diverse Books logoSo I am back, obviously, from my Exciting BEA Adventure. Overall, it was a wonderful trip. I met a lot of delightful people, and sometimes they handed me books. I pulled myself together and did a lot of social things, and those moments were awesome also. One of these days, I’ll probably write more about the larger BEA experience, but what I’d like to concentrate on today is the We Need Diverse Books panel on Saturday morning.

Here’s some context: A conversation about diversity in books and publishing has been brewing for a long while now, but it really stepped up in April of this year, when BookCon, the consumer aspect of BEA, announced its power author panel for kidlit. The panel was four popular kidlit authors — all white, all men, and all (as far as anyone knows) cisgender and heterosexual. There was an outcry, and then BookCon responded by adding a lot more author events. For a while it looked like their entire response would be these additions — another 20+ white people, plus Grumpy Cat. Things continued to change after that, with a more diverse set of authors gradually appearing on the roster, but one of the results of the whole situation was the launch of the We Need Diverse Books hashtag, which rocked the internet.

For more information on the hashtag, the BookCon issues, and other important contexts, I highly recommend a careful perusal of the actual We Need Diverse Books site; this, this, and this from BookRiot, and this essay by Daniel Jose Older.

As I said, a lot of people have been talking about diversity in publishing for a really long time, since it’s been a problem for a really long time. At the SCBWI conference in February, for example, the PEN people made a point of calling publishing out on the very skewed numbers in children’s books — so many kids of color, LGBTQ kids, kids in wheelchairs or on crutches, kids with autism, etc etc etc. in the world, and so few represented in books. Ellen Oh, the most public face behind the We Need Diverse Books campaign, was posting lists of diverse titles ages ago.

The panel itself was one of the best places I’ve ever been. First of all, I am damn impressed that people got there, since BookCon and BEA had helpfully put it into a conference room in the very deepest bowels of the Javits Center, scheduled against a BEA panel on people of color in publishing. I wish they had not done that — both conversations are so important, and a lot of people got a distinct whiff of divide and conquer from the scheduling. Second, though, because the We Need Diverse Books panel was part of BookCon, not BEA, it meant that any member of the book reading public who had registered for BookCon could come to the panel. This was a very, very good thing.

Now then. There has been a lot of coverage of the panel, and of the We Need Diverse Books campaign’s incredibly awesome plans for the future, so I am going to suggest you read the clear and helpful recaps put together by Deb Reese and AICL, Publisher’s Weekly, and Shelf-Awareness. And then I am going to tell you what it felt like to be in the room, and what it made me feel about the past and the present and the future of books, reading, and writing.

As the clock moved closer to 10 a.m., the room filled. And then it overflowed. The panelists found themselves facing a standing room only crowd, with people being turned away. (If you were turned away, or if you missed the panel entirely, here’s a link to the audio stream.) I’ve been to a lot of writing/book events, and this was by far the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen at one of them, by a long shot. For the first time in my entire experience of being in the writing/reading/book/publishing world, I was one of only a tiny handful of white guys of a certain age in the room; I have never, in any kind of book event, been in a room with such a wide range of races, ethnicities, religions/faiths, sizes, ages, cultural backgrounds, gender identities, health statuses, orientations, etc etc etc. It was extremely encouraging. Overall, the crowd seemed both very young and very fired up, which only got better as the panel got itself together and started right on time.

You have probably encountered already much of the language that panelists and presenters used, including the phrase “call to arms.” Well, this was that exactly. That phrase gets tossed around a lot, and I suspect there are a lot of people who thought (hoped?) that this panel, and perhaps the whole #WeNeedDiverseBooks “trend,” would be just a lot of drama for a few days and then it would go away. Those people are in for a sad surprise. Although the panelists and presenters were cheerful, upbeat, and positive, they were also wholly serious. The general sense in the room was that there is growing visibility of the Us vs Them situation in publishing (which publishing must be aware of by now), and that it’s up to those of us who care about diversity in books (as opposed to the false rhetoric of “marketability,” “saleability,” etc etc etc) to make it happen. As Ellen Oh pointed out, “Writing off the call for diverse books as a trend is dismissive and evasive,” given that for many of us, diversity is not a trend, it’s our life.

And that room… If you care about diverse books, you already know that a lot of the book world is white, cisgender, etc. This is true of the actual publishing industry as well as places like MFA programs (which Junot Diaz wrote about not long ago). Many of the people who filled the room were quite young. Many of them were obviously readers and writers, and I would imagine that quite a lot of them are only a few months or years away from applying to internships, low-level editorial posts, and MFA programs, and that shift is going to change everything. Publishing is going to evolve, whether it wants to or not. The people who care about #WeNeedDiverseBooks (and who used the hashtag 162 million times between the end of April and the end of May, by the way) are not going away. We’re not going to stop reading and writing, but we are going to vote with our dollars (such a terrible phrase, but applicable), and agitate for change. An example that panelist Matt de la Pena used was the way that most other industries are working really hard, and spending a lot of money, to reach the Hispanic market, while publishing doesn’t seem to have noticed that market at all. “Publishing needs to understand that we’re coming for it,” he said. Everyone sort of laughed, but not really; we knew he was completely serious.

The authors involved did not pull any punches. Sometimes, as when panelists were asked about the first time they encountered a kid’s book with a character that reflected them, everyone in the room got kind of shivery, trying to remember when or if they had had that encounter. Panelist Mike Jung said he had never found that book; next to him, Lamar Giles said that he was still looking also, but that he’d been incredibly relieved when he found Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, even though the young black men in that book had life stories that were nothing like his. Grace Lin talked about being grateful to find books with any Asian characters, even when they were rife with stereotypes and from a totally different culture than her own, because at least there was someone sort of like her in a book. Jacqueline Woodson, in talking about trying to find herself in books, said that she hadn’t realized “what I’d missed until I saw it on the page, and then I was hungry for it the rest of my life.”

That, really, was the point of the panel, and the audience responded. One young man stood up and talked about being on a Navy ship for months at a time, and how much reading he did, and how much he wished that there had been books that weren’t always so white. There were comments about wanting to read about diverse characters, but being afraid to pick up a book for fear of the Sassy Black Friend or the Geeky Asian Girl or the Exotic Asian Boy, or characters who didn’t get a real story because their “story” was all about their issue (especially for LGBT readers/characters and people with disabilities, Autism, etc.).

For me, there were a lot of best moments. All five panelists (Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Matt de la Pena, Grace Lin, and Jacqueline Woodson) and most of the presenters were writers of color, and there is a kind of power that comes from showing strength like that, from coolly debunking this idea that it’s hard to find popular, credible, interesting, well-known authors who aren’t a bunch of white people. At the same time, though, We Need Diverse Books is about much more than race or ethnicity, and I look forward to seeing how the movement explores additional kinds of diversity going forward.

What I keep thinking about was when Jacqueline Woodson compared We Need Diverse Books to ACT-UP. Most of the people in the room were too young to know what she was talking about, or lacked context in other ways, but when she said that… She’s exactly right. This movement has the potential to be as radical, as loud, and as important. I know about the “it’s just books” argument, but stories are about lives, and if there are no stories about your life… Erasure is not okay, and if we end up having read-ins, or rallies, or whatever, I think that’s just fine. We must continue to be heard.

For more information on We Need Diverse Books, check them out on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

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