We Need Diverse Books: A Decade in Action

It all started on Twitter. In April 2014, the fan convention BookCon announced a lineup of authors for a “blockbuster” panel — a panel that consisted of four white men. Frustrated by this news, authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo discussed the lack of representation across the children’s publishing industry in a Twitter exchange. And in a series of follow-up posts, Oh began talking about taking action.


Ellen Oh (WNDB CEO and award-winning author): “For the longest time there was this myth in publishing that books by and about BIPOC would not sell. But it was a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you don’t believe a book will sell, you don’t market it, and nobody knows about it.”


Criticism over the panel continued to build, especially after BookCon revealed its full roster of children’s authors set to appear at its conference in New York City. Every author on the list was white, with the exception of the meme sensation Grumpy Cat.


Lamar Giles (WNDB founding member and author): “Creators and readers were tired of publishing’s self-fulfilling narrative that only the white authors (AND A CAT) were worthy of attention.”


Many diverse creators shared Oh’s and Giles’s sentiments. While what was then called multicultural literature had gained notice in the 1980s and 1990s, much of the headway in diversifying children’s publishing had receded by 2014.


Cynthia Leitich Smith (author-curator of the Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins and New York Times bestselling author): “Publishing [had] retracted to a handful of voices — mostly male — from various underrepresented communities…I pivoted to writing everything from Santa Claus to gothics — literally — and found myself hesitating to offer encouragement when fellow Indigenous writers asked me about the children’s/YA market.”


As the BookCon discourse snowballed, Giles and Oh, along with other authors such as Aisha Saeed, discussed how to best capitalize on the conversation. They decided on a hashtag — #WeNeedDiverseBooks — and reached out to fellow creators and publishing professionals to share why diverse books are needed. In late April 2014, Saeed shared the hashtag in a tweet, which quickly took off.


Aisha Saeed (WNDB founding member and New York Times bestselling author): “It went viral for days and days and days. I remember that morning, tweeting it out. A few hours later it was trending and it did not stop. It went from zero to sixty.”


Soon, BookCon reached out.


Saeed: “Later that day…I saw a missed call…It was BookCon, and they said, ‘We would like to have you all come to BookCon. We’ll have a space for you to do a talk about this topic; we want to broaden this conversation.’”

Oh: “Of course we had to go! We had a platform and everyone was watching to see what we would do. So I told everyone, we had to have a plan that would create actual change in the industry.”

Saeed: “It was standing room only, so much love, so much support, and that’s when we realized this couldn’t just be a hashtag.”


Using the momentum, a group of writers formed WNDB’s original executive committee, including Oh, Giles, and Saeed along with authors Marieke Nijkamp, Miranda Paul, Karen Sandler, and Ilene Wong. The first step: ­turning the viral hashtag into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.


Oh: “I am a lawyer who worked in nonprofits for over ten years. I had the experience and the determination. It made sense. I just didn’t realize how hard it would be. None of us did. I think I talked more to Lamar than my own husband that first year. The executive committee was basically my family.”


WNDB’s original programming adopted a holistic approach, targeting all aspects of the book pipeline: from the diverse authors who created the books to the publishing professionals who acquired them to the readers who consumed them. Soon the flagship programs of WNDB, which would create significant and sustainable change over the next decade, began to take shape.


Marietta Zacker (original Walter Grant committee member and chair and literary agent): “We knew that supporting authors and illustrators was vital. With that goal in mind, we established the Walter Dean Myers Grant program, providing $2000 each to a number of unpublished creators so they could hone their craft and pursue book deals. We named this initiative after beloved children’s author Walter Dean Myers, a champion of diverse books who died in July 2014, just as WNDB was establishing itself as an organization.”


The first round of Walter Grants was awarded in 2015. One grantee from that inaugural cycle was a Black writer from Mississippi. That writer, Angie Thomas, is now a New York Times ­bestselling author and has since received the Printz Award, among other distinctions. Other early Walter Grant recipients were author Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrator ­Jacqueline Alcántara, who have both amassed significant recognition for their work.

In 2016, WNDB launched its Mentorship program, pairing aspiring creators with established authors and illustrators to work together over twelve months. Many mentees have since landed book deals, including 2019 participant Angeline Boulley, mentored by award-winning author Francisco X. Stork. Boulley’s novel Firekeeper’s Daughter was a runaway bestseller and has been optioned by the Obamas’ development company for Netflix. The 2023 Newbery and CSK Author winner, Freewater, was written by Amina Luqman-Dawson, herself a 2019 WNDB writing mentee. In total, WNDB mentees have published more than seventy books.

The programs were working, as was demonstrated by data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Of 3,500 books received by the CCBC in 2021, creators and characters of color in children’s books had gone from about ten percent to more than thirty percent since WNDB’s inception.


Caroline Richmond (WNDB executive director and author): “Supporting diverse creators was only the first part of the pipeline. Marginalized voices needed buy-in from the editors who acquired the books, the designers who packaged them, the marketers who promoted them, and so on. We had to help diversify the overwhelmingly white and cishet publishing industry from within.”

Linda Sue Park (honorary Children’s Internship Grant committee chair and Newbery Award–winning author): “I wanted to work on widening inclusion among publishing interns because of a conversation I had many years ago with Walter Dean Myers. We were discussing diversity in children’s publishing — no, that’s not accurate. I was whining, complaining, moaning; he was listening. My main concern was that I saw the various diversity initiatives then being practiced as whack-a-mole fix-its rather than systemic change. I’d made a list of ideas, most of them wildly impractical, and I went through them with him. When I got to ‘internships,’ he stopped me. ‘That one,’ he said. ‘Work on that.’”


That kernel of an idea led to WNDB’s Internship Grant program, which provides a stipend for diverse publishing interns. The funds can be put toward room and board, transportation, and other costs to lessen the financial strain that often prevents students from ­accepting an internship, which is an integral step in gaining full-time work at a publisher or literary agency. WNDB also provides resources, including professional development events, to foster community among participants.


Kandace Coston (children’s book editor at Lee & Low Books and 2015 WNDB Internship Grant recipient): “The resources that WNDB provided encouraged us interns to ask questions, take initiative, and set up informational interviews. I was inspired to take advantage of my time.”


Since 2015, WNDB has given more than one hundred grants to interns, totaling nearly $300,000 — and the investment has paid off. Over seventy-five percent of WNDB’s Internship Grantees have found permanent positions in publishing, and many are now acquiring editors.

The final piece of the pipeline was perhaps the most important: the ­readers. As in, the kids. The children searching to find themselves in the pages of a book, to experience perspectives different from their own.


Richmond: “We established the WNDB in the Classroom program to put diverse books by diverse authors into the hands of students. Since 2014, we’ve given away more than one hundred thousand books, and we aim to donate many more — the need is there. Whenever we host a book giveaway for educators, we receive many more requests for titles than we have available to give.”


Of the one hundred thousand books donated, over twenty thousand have been winners of WNDB’s Walter Dean Myers Awards, including Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. WNDB also distributes thousands of copies of its acclaimed anthologies (such as Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh) to provide educators with diverse short fiction easily integrated into the classroom.


Anthologies compiled by WNDB.


Tracy Weiss (educator at All Tribes American Indian Charter School and recipient of an Educators Making a Difference Grant from WNDB): “We are a small charter school located on a reservation…These children are proud of their heritage and culture yet often know little about it. These books are serving to educate them about who they are and where they have come from. The novels are providing characters, plots, and settings that they can relate to and therefore increase interest in reading.”


When COVID hit in 2020, WNDB continued to donate books to educators, offering to ship boxes directly to their homes during virtual learning. WNDB expanded throughout the pandemic, introducing initiatives such as the Black Creatives Fund to support Black creators and Emergency Grants to help creators affected by COVID.

By early 2021, WNDB had grown from an all-volunteer movement to a formal organization with two full-time employees and a team of consultants handling day-to-day operations. WNDB had survived its nascent years and was making real strides in bringing change to the industry.


Jacqueline Woodson (National Book Award winner and 2018–19 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, former WNDB Advisory Board member): “In ten years, WNDB has literally changed the narrative of young people’s literature.”

Meg Medina (2023–24 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, WNDB Advisory Board member, and Newbery Award–winning author): “WNDB’s roots as a grassroots movement now sustain an organization that is savvy and unflinching in its support of actionable, if sometimes difficult, solutions to the lack of representation in children’s literature.”


But then came the backlash. Banned book lists began circulating in states such as Tennessee and Utah. Diverse titles were quietly removed from shelves — the titles WNDB had worked to foster, celebrate, and support. Suddenly, teachers in parts of Florida and Texas were unable to accept diverse books into their classrooms, and some have cleared out their classroom libraries for fear of being reprimanded — or fired.

If it sounds far-fetched, it’s not. An eighth-grade teacher in Charles City, Iowa, was placed on administrative leave after she taught a short story from WNDB’s YA anthology Fresh Ink. That story, “Catch, Pull, Drive” by Schuyler Bailar, features a transgender teen swimmer and was challenged due to “strong language.” The teacher has since resigned.


Oh: “I don’t think any of us are surprised by the backlash, because racism and bigotry still exist. But what has shocked us is the level of state censorship, and at the elected school board level too. It’s happening across the country. It is incredibly dangerous to us as a democracy, and so devastatingly harmful to our marginalized young people, who are literally watching local governments tell them they shouldn’t exist. It makes me so angry.”


According to statistics collected by PEN America, these bans affect more than four million schoolchildren across the country, disproportionately targeting books written by diverse creators. Of those banned books, forty-one percent addressed LGBTQIA+ themes, protagonists, or “prominent secondary characters,” and forty percent featured protagonists or “prominent secondary characters” of color.

As the book challenges increased, WNDB began reaching out to concerned educators and grassroots groups combatting the bans locally. It was time to get to work.


Stephana Ferrell (director of research and insight at the Florida Freedom to Read Project): “This current movement to restrict the books available to students in the library was kicked off in 2017 by a state-focused, school-choice proponent, ‘family values’-in-the-classroom interest group. This group does not believe that information related to LGBTQ+ people should be anywhere in our schools, including our libraries. They are also of the belief that access to information related to America’s more troubled history of stolen land, oppression, enslavement, segregation, and internment camps should be limited to ensure students are not ‘indoctrinated’ to think the United States is anything less than perfect.”

Amanda Jones (librarian and educator in Louisiana): “In my state, there is currently a push to censor books written about or by members of the LGBTQ+ community under the guise of ‘protecting the children from pornography.’ The censors will insist it is not about that, but the lists of books they find objectionable prove otherwise, and we are seeing this all across the United States. They utilize fear tactics, harmful rhetoric, and social media to cause book hysteria. Once they have everyone worked up, they start talking about defunding the library.”


More and more diverse creators have become affected by the bans. Author Lee Wind’s YA nonfiction title No Way, They Were Gay?: Hidden Lives and Secret Loves was on the Chicago Public Library’s 2021 Best of the Best Books List, but has since been banned in Tennessee.


Lee Wind (author): “Having my book on these [banned book] lists makes it harder for middle school, high school, and even public librarians to bring that book in, even though they know it would help empower the queer kids…in their community. Because now they have to worry about their jobs or even being arrested — and they might just decide the risk isn’t worth it. But that leaves those queer kids (and their non-queer allies) without access to LGBTQ+ history.”


Similarly, author A. J. Sass, whose ­novels have appeared on the ALA ­Rainbow Book List and as Junior Library Guild Gold selections, has had his book Ana on the Edge banned in Texas.


A. J. Sass (author): “I didn’t have access to books that centered the narratives of queer and disabled characters when I was young, and it means the world to me to know these books exist now — and, indeed, that I get the honor of writing some of them. Knowing that they’re being challenged makes me feel immeasurably sad. Books truly do save lives.”


The fight thus far has been difficult, as so much varies district by district. WNDB launched the Books Save Lives campaign in December 2022 with a singular goal in mind — to defend the importance of diverse literature against book banning and censorship.


Oh: “The book banning campaign is based on fear and misinformation to alarm parents, but it has deep roots in efforts to undermine public education. The future of all of our children is on the line. So we have to fight with every means possible. WNDB launched the Books Save Lives program to defend all the progress that has been made by so many great authors of our past and present, and to protect the rights of all children, not just the privileged ones.”

Richmond: “At WNDB, we’ve long subscribed to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s teaching that children need books that are ‘Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors’ into the human experience. Diverse books teach empathy. They can open a child’s heart by showing them how to walk in another person’s shoes. And as parents and as members of our communities, don’t we want our future generations to grow into caring and compassionate adults?”


Books Save Lives boasts a three-pronged approach:

  • granting up to $10,000 to purchase diverse titles for school libraries, prioritizing areas affected by book bans;
  • working with grassroots organizations in battleground states, producing educational materials for their ­­on-the-ground campaigns and providing other support;
  • supporting diverse authors by purchasing their books, providing “publicity for challenged titles,” and sending them on paid school visits to bolster lost income.

Because when diverse books aren’t being purchased or read, that affects the entire pipeline WNDB has been working for ten years to change.


Sass: “Kids can’t read or buy our books if they don’t know they exist. And low sales translate to fewer opportunities to write more books in the future.”

Oh: “This is going to be a difficult battle because fighting against bigotry and hate is always terrible. But we will win because there are more of us who really care about the kids and our future. And we are on the right side of history.”

Woodson: “There is so much work still to be done and I’ve no doubt that in the next ten years WNDB will have done a lot of it! So proud to be walking in stride with such a fearlessly committed organization.”

From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future.

The WNDB team

We Need Diverse Books is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that runs a dozen initiatives united under one goal — to create a world where everyone can find themselves in the pages of a book. Established in 2014, WNDB strives to support and amplify diverse literature by mentoring marginalized creators, providing resources to diverse publishing professionals, and donating diverse books to schools and libraries nationwide. Learn more at diversebooks.org.

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