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A good book is a good book

Diversity in publishing is good—as long as it doesn’t drive us apart

A good book is a good book

(Aisha Saeed)

BookCon is a splashy, youth-oriented media event that premiered in May 2014 as an extension of Book Expo America. Teen author Ellen Oh was looking forward to the first BookCon with anticipation; but while browsing the conference schedule, she noticed a panel on youth publishing composed of four top-selling authors: James Patterson, John Green, Rick Riordan, and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). Truly a star-studded lineup—but why were all the speakers white, straight, men?

After talking it over with other authors and friends, Oh’s disgruntlement became a group project. For inspiration they passed around an opinion piece from the March 5 New York Times Book Review by Walter Dean Myers, author of over 100 books for middle-graders and teens. “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” tells how the author’s early reading experience while growing up in Harlem failed to affirm him as a person. He stopped reading altogether in his early 20s, and only returned to it via James Baldwin: “By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s [stories] also humanized me.”

Myers was correct about the scarcity of children’s books for and about minorities. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported that, of the approximately 5,000 children’s books published in 2013, only 68 were by black authors, 90 by Asians, 48 by Latinos, and 18 by Native Americans. Whites are also overrepresented in the publishing industry as a whole—by over 90 percent. 

Armed with stats like these, Ellen Oh and her friends launched #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB), a grassroots campaign that caught fire in the hashtag world. WNDB describes itself “as committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.” Its effect was immediate; BookCon coordinators broke up the scheduled all-white, all-male panel and organized a diversity panel, which spoke to a packed house. Over the next 13 months, WNDB raised $320,000 through an online fundraising site, established a Diversity Festival and a book award, published recommended book lists, produced classroom materials, and recruited countless authors, booksellers, and readers to tweet photos of themselves holding signs with their personal reasons for needing diverse books. For example:

  • Because no little kid ever said, “I want a box of 64 white crayons!”
  • Because there are more than 1.2 million teens in America with disabilities. Where are their stories?
  • Because LBGT people don’t look good wearing invisibility cloaks!
  • Because I grew up thinking brown men couldn’t be anything more than a sidekick.

WNDB may even have influenced this year’s Youth Media awards given by the American Library Association. Observers couldn’t help noticing that, of the three Newbery winners, two are verse novels about black characters and the other is a graphic novel about a hearing-impaired girl. (WORLD favorably reviewed all three books. The Crossover, which celebrates a strong, sports-loving, African-American family, was a runner-up for WORLD’s first Children’s Book of the Year.)

We Need Diverse Books exists to help minority children understand they’re not alone, and to help everyone else respect minorities. Understanding and respect should be goals of all good literature. 

Diversity for its own sake can derail those very aims—for example, when a combative tone makes white dominance in publishing seem like a supremacist plot. In a panel of science-fiction writers at this year’s BookCon, Daniel José Older reflected on the history of sci-fi as “a very colonial, racist, political endeavor.” In another panel, YA author Soman Chainani spoke of taking a course in college “that equated pornography with Disney movies”—part of his inspiration to write a series of novels that exploded the old “white” notions of good and evil.

Also, much of what flies under the banner of “diversity” dwells on grievance rather than progress. Walter Dean Myers himself deplored movies and literature that portrayed blacks as victims. In another article, he wrote about black history “as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.”

Finally, “diversity” stretched too far loses its integrity. According to the WNDB mission statement, the term encompasses “LBGTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” “Disability” can mean physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, and developmental challenges, plus chronic and mental illness, including addiction. The list conflates identities, conditions, and practices, reducing them to mere “differences” and implying that almost any difference (i.e., deviation from traditional Christian morality) is good in itself. The goal of mutual respect and understanding falls behind the rush to celebrate the latest alternative experience.

A good book is a good book, no matter the color or condition of the characters, but Christian readers already have good reason to broaden their tastes. They are commissioned to go into all the world—not to make white Christians, but to make disciples of many nations for one Savior. WNDB may make a permanent mark on the publishing industry and expand readership among minorities—but will it bring readers together or drive them further apart?

Adult Books for Young Readers

“Young Reader” editions—adaptations of bestsellers originally written for adults—are a developing trend in children’s publishing, with some outstanding examples published within the last 12 months. Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (Young Adult Adaptation) simplifies the language and screens out some of the more lurid details of Louis Zamperini’s WWII experience in a Japanese POW camp, but leaves the inspirational story intact. It makes a great choice for reluctant readers.

The YR edition of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells of young William Kamkwamba’s efforts to bring dependable electrical power to his Malawi village by building a windmill with junkyard parts. Parents may want to block numerous instances of “by God” (though Kamkwamba thanks God for his success), but it’s an absorbing tale for boys in particular. Even better, a YR edition of Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place features illustrations, shorter chapters, and condensed material that take nothing away from the impact of the story. —J.B.C.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:47 am

    Oh, and one more thing, will the schools allow Miss Jones to read, "Sally has two Christian parents, and they go to church" ?

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:47 am

    The premise is good, but as always, the implementation is / will be bad, infused with PC. We have a entire month for black history, is that having a positive impact ? Do students ever learn about Frederic Douglass ? Hate to be a stick in the mud, but what prevented these kinds of books from being written before the hash-tag was invented ? Oh, the mean old white guys who run the publishing houses, I forgot about that.And, in  the name of diversity, your first graders will be reading about LBGTQIA before they learn the alphabet. DIVERSITY RULES !!!! Not to mention the first book in first grade says, "65 million years ago, the dinosaurs got blasted to smithereens by an asteroid". SCIENCE !!!