I recently attended SCBWI’s Wild, Wild Midwest Conference where author Linda Sue Park, author Miranda Paul, and agent Marietta Zacker updated everyone on the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Park, Paul, and Zacker characterized the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) movement in the context of the publishing industry's history and its desperate needs for the future. Ive never felt so keenly aware of how my role as a writer in the present moment is actively shaping out nation.
“No one would assume that one or two books could possibly tell the story of all white people,” Linda Sue Park began. Yet the publishing industry has historically limited African American writers' paths to success. An African American author can write a book about one of essentially four topics --slavery, the underground railroad, the civil rights movement, or the ghetto. This is no place for the children’s publishing world to remain, not when the books on our shelves do not reflect the diversity of our population.
Linda Sue Park, described WNDB’s work as a long game. She likened the situation to when women entered the workforce during WWII. When the men came home from fighting overseas, Rosie the Riveter did not cheerfully skip back into the kitchen. Many women wanted to keep their jobs, and this meant that some male veterans didn’t get their positions back. Painful in the moment. But in the long run a workforce infused with women benefited everyone. So today, when publishers tell white writers they don’t want their multiculturally cast books because they are not writers of color, this is a corrective. "But remember, this is a long game we’re playing," Park says. "When our bookshelves reflect our population, we can all write any book we want." There is a lot to unpack in that statement, a lot I can get excited about.
In the almost all-white audience, more than one white writer asked about how to include diverse characters. Park addressed this candidly. She explained some writers hold to an old theory that leaving out details about characters’ physical appearance allows readers to imagine characters as any race, including their own. “This is a very white perspective,” Park said, “because, if you are a minority, how you look comes up every day!” As the mother of an international adoptee, this rang very true. Adding diverse characters just because it seems like the thing to do misses the mark. Writing diverse characters has to come from a real place, from a lived experience. Park offered the example of a white writer whose child has a close friend of another culture. "To write another culture," she explained, "you have to understand someone so well that you know what goes on behind his door when he goes home."
The way Park describes it, instead of randomly assigning different races to our characters, writers need to start making different choices. “Because,” she says, “we have to make new and different mistakes.” Park shared this series of anecdotes to illustrate. When she went to the library as a child, there were zero books about Asian characters. After she published A Single Shard, a librarian said to her, “I’m so glad to have books about China!” A Single Shard is about Korea, but at least this was a new and different mistake. At least someone was excited to see a story from another culture appearing on the shelf. More recently, a teacher told Park she was so happy to be able to give A Single Shard to a darling Korean girl in her class. Of course, A Single Shard should be given to all readers. But, again, this is a new and different kind of mistake.
In fact, Park suggested some very specific things we can all do to facilitate the kind of change WNDB is working toward. First, buy diverse books! (Consider this for your summer reading.) Second, request diverse books at your library! And third, talk and share about the diverse books you read! When I came home from the conference, one of the first things I did is forward this wonderful, free, downloadable, WNDB Book Talking Kit to my school and public librarians, as well as, our independent children's book store owner. Check it out --it's wonderful! I highly encourage you to visit the WNDB website and learn about the internship grants, mentorships, awards, and other programs the WNDB community is launching to change the face of the publishing industry itself! In addition, my goal is to continue searching for ways to step outside my bubble and surround myself personally with the real, and diverse, and amazing world that we live in. I hope you will join me.