By Lauren Patetta
Growing up, Caroline Richmond never saw herself represented in the books she read.
As an Asian-American woman, Richmond never encountered a book that reflected her own experiences, even though she was an avid bookworm. At least, she hadn’t until her freshman year of high school, when Richmond’s English teacher assigned “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan to the class.
“I just remember that moment so clearly of my teacher telling us to put the book away because she’s going to start the lesson, and I couldn’t,” Richmond said in an interview. “I just felt, like, clarity and acceptance and awe of seeing myself on the page… I didn’t really know that I’ve been searching for that feeling my whole life until I found it on the page.”
As an adult, Richmond found herself drawn to We Need Diverse Books, a social media movement that started on Twitter as a call for better representation and diversity in literature. The movement turned into a nonprofit organization in 2014, when Richmond started as a volunteer. She later joined the staff in 2017, and still works there today as Program Director.
Publishing companies and the books they sell have long been dominated by straight, white men, but in the past six years, that has started to change. Movements like We Need Diverse Books and #OwnVoices have pushed the industry forward, forcing publishers and booksellers to rethink the amount of diversity within their own ranks.
“The U.S. will soon be a majority-minority country,” said Richmond, “and a lot of marginalized people are hungry for their stories to be told and to be told by people who have experienced it and who can write authentically about it.”
Most of the momentum has been from authors, specifically in children’s literature. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has reported steadily increasing numbers of children’s and young adult books by and about people from underrepresented communities, including people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.
At the same time, the makeup of the industry itself has remained fairly stagnant. People who work at publishing companies are still majority white and heterosexual, according to data from Lee and Low Books, a multicultural children’s book publisher.
“The fact that the demographics of our industry don’t reflect our increasingly diverse country is a problem on multiple levels,” Allison Hill, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Booksellers Association, said in an email.
We Need Diverse Books, also known as WNDB, was the first concerted effort to try and change things in the industry. It was started on Twitter by young adult authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo as a response to an all-white, all-male panel of children’s authors at BookCon in 2014. Oh and Lo, frustrated by the lack of diversity in children’s bookselling, demanded that the industry take action, and other authors and readers quickly joined in. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag started trending, and a movement was born. Oh, Lo and a group of other authors, illustrators and publishers formed WNDB into a nonprofit that same year, with a goal to diversify children’s literature and raise awareness of the issue.
“I think people were really looking for something like WNDB before the hashtag occurred,” Alaina Lavoie, the Communications Manager for We Need Diverse Books, said in an interview. “It really just gave them a rallying cry and something physical, tangible to help support rather than everybody kind of having efforts on their own.”
Now, WNDB operates 12 different initiatives, all meant to bring more perspectives, identities and backgrounds into the industry. Some of these initiatives include grants for unpublished authors from diverse backgrounds, emergency funds, internship grants, mentorship programs and even a classroom program that donates diverse books to schools.
In terms of diversifying the content of books and the authors who write them, WNDB has been markedly successful. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) launched an online database of diversity statistics in children’s books in 2018, where librarians track the number of books by and about people from underrepresented communities. Madeline Tyner, one of the librarians who logs the data, said that the number of diverse books has been steadily increasing, largely thanks to the efforts of WNDB.
“If you look at the graph, it’s slowly increasing, and then a little bit of a plateau,” they said in an interview. “And then We Need Diverse Books comes on the scene and it’s a quick increase.”
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has been tracking the number of books by and about people of color since 1985, and recently expanded its logging to include books by and about LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and people from different religions. Tyner said book counting was done by hand until 2018, when the center received funding to build a full database. Now, publishing companies and even some independent authors send in books to the CCBC so that they may be included in the database. Tyner alone reads around 250 novels a year to keep up with logging but said even that’s not enough to keep up with every book the CCBC receives.
According to Tyner, the decision for the CCBC to start collecting data on various aspects of identity in books was sparked by two main things: first, funding, and second, a growing awareness of intersectionality.
“Instead of, like, all white LGBT characters, it’ll be a character who is black and lesbian and whatever other identities they have,” Tyner said. “(More books are) able to represent those intersectional identities in a really authentic way, and not in a way that feels tacked on.”
We Need Diverse Books is not the only reason for better representation in children’s literature. Publishing companies like Lee and Low Books focus solely on multicultural children’s books, and the #OwnVoices hashtag started by author Corinne Duyvis has brought awareness to the need for people from marginalized communities to tell their own stories.
Children’s and young adult literature has been particularly successful in this area for a number of reasons. Richmond attributes the success to the tight-knit community of “kidlit” writers and publishers, making it easier to get a movement rolling. Lavoie also said that the audience may have something to do with it.
“I do believe that one of the reasons that a lot of people have rallied around children’s books in particular is because of the research out there that children learn empathy and identity and self-awareness,” Lavoie said. “From a young age, there is a significant impact on kids being able to see themselves in books and media and to see others in books and media.”
As the Teen Resources Librarian at Bernards Township Library in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, Rachel Talbert works frequently with teenagers. In her work, she has noticed something similar to Lavoie.
“The point of YA and middle grade books is to help teens identify and find themselves, where they are, and how to get through what they’re going through,” she said in an interview.
Adult literature, however, is a different story. The adult sphere does not have an equivalent to WNDB, nor does it have a logging system like the CCBC database, which makes it hard to track data and to form similarly unifying movements.
“The adult sphere, it’s a lot more spread out,” said Richmond. “You have people who just aren’t that online or on social media as much.”
However, Richmond said WNDB is planning on branching out into some areas of adult publishing by extending internship grants to people working in adult publishing by next summer.
“I think they’re being published, I just don’t know if the enthusiasm is there,” Talbert said, in regards to diverse books in adult publishing. “I feel like adults are kind of stuck with what they like. Certain adults will only read certain books and other things will make them uncomfortable, so they won’t read them.”
The adult sphere, however, has seen some progress. Most recently, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in June sparked a massive interest in anti-racist literature over the summer, with books like “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo jumping to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
“I think June was a consciousness, not just raising, but explosion, for white people and for everyone when it comes to a deeper understanding of the importance of representation and diversity in general,” Hill said. “We’ve seen a significant increase in sales of anti-racist titles and BIPOC authors as a result.”
Emily Brodowicz is the marketing coordinator for Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, and she said she has noticed the interest in anti-racist literature growing, especially over the summer. But she also acknowledged the store needs to promote all kinds of diverse books, not just those that explicitly discuss race.
“I think an important part of the We Need Diverse Books movement is that it’s not just about anti-racist books,” Brodowicz said in an interview. “It’s also about black cookbook authors and science fiction authors and authors of color writing in other subjects.”
Despite the progress from books and authors, the industry continues to lag behind. Lee and Low Books put out a Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015 and 2019 which looked at the diversity of employees at the biggest publishing companies. The results still showed a majority white, majority straight industry, statistics that haven’t changed in the four years between surveys.
Lee and Low’s survey looked at nearly every level of the publishing industry, ranging from interns to the executive level. In the 2019 study, interns were the most diverse, at 51 percent white and 51 percent straight. The other areas — executive, editorial, marketing, sales, literary agents and book reviewers — all fell around 80 percent white and 75 percent straight. Cis women were the most common by far across all levels in regard to gender, and the vast majority of employees were non-disabled.
Many in the industry are aware of the problem, and some are taking steps to address it. According to Hill, the American Booksellers Association has started conducting anti-racist training for staff, holding quarterly discussions about diversity and waiving membership fees for bookstores owned by people of color.
“I believe the first step has to be our own foundation,” Hill said.
In bookstores, Brodowicz said it’s important to find new ways to promote and support books by and about diverse voices, or else publishers won’t sell them or hire more diverse employees.
“The average person in publishing or in book selling looks a lot like me,” Brodowicz said. “It’s a lot of 20- and 30-year-old white women, and we need to realize that we need to find ways to open those doors up to other people and recognize the ways in which those doors have been closed.”
Even with the problems, there’s hope for improvement in the future, and new milestones are being reached every day. In September, “Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas became the first fantasy book written by a transgender author to make the New York Times best seller list.
“I think every marginalized group was shoehorned into (stories about) trauma,” Lavoie said. “But the more we’ve allowed people to just write about whatever they want, to write about superhero stories, murder mysteries… the more that we’ve seen that flourish. Because people want to read something new, and they want to read those types of stories that they’ve never seen before.”