On May 13, First Book, a nonprofit advocacy group committed to providing books to children in need, asked U.S. publishers to submit unpublished picture books featuring diversity and pledged to buy 10,000 copies of each new title selected. The nonprofit will also fund affordable paperback editions of diverse titles that are only publicly available in expensive hardcover formats. (These books will be available on the First Book Marketplace at 50 to 90 percent below retail for community programs and schools where at least 70 percent of children served are from low-income or military families as well as at Title I eligible schools.)
The company’s public pledge was largely inspired by the recent momentum behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) Twitter campaign launched by Ellen Oh, the young adult author of the “Prophecy” series (HarperCollins, 2013). Oh, who has always been an advocate for diversity, pitched the idea to run a Tumblr and Twitter hashtag campaign to help make a statement about the need for greater diversity after the announcement in April of the all-male, all-white BookCon 2014 panel line-up stirred criticism from kid lit (and larger) community.
She worked together with a number of authors, bloggers and publishing executives, including Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, co-founders of the Diversity in YA website, and Chelsea Pitcher, founder of the “Diversify Your Shelves” campaign and the author of the young adult novel The S-Word (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
Launched in May 2014 and backed by the Oakland Public Library, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Twitter campaign has gained enough momentum to generate over 3 million impressions from approximately 1,500 tweets in the past few weeks; in the course of eight days (April 28 – May 5), the hashtag campaign has made 156,000,624 impressions from 84,952 posts with 22,492 users, reaching a total of 43,705,463 individuals, according to #WeNeedDiverseBooks team member Tracy Lopez. (In other words, the campaign has been an ongoing viral success.)
“It was awe inspiring to see the Oakland library in California get so behind our message. Their photos on their Twitter feed were some of the greatest things any of us had seen,” says Oh about the Oakland library photos featuring children and young adults holding handwritten signs that state why we need diverse books.
Since the launch, booksellers and libraries all over the country have set up #WeNeedDiverseBooks displays to showcase diverse books, and the WNDB team announced their partnership at the BookCon panel on May 31 in New York City. Panelists included Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Grace Lin, Matt de la Peña, and Jacqueline Woodson, and WNDB team member I.W. Gregorio moderated the event. The diverse 200+ audience of children, authors, and industry professionals applauded First Book and WNDB’s joined efforts. When asked how they felt about First Book’s solution, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team expressed excitement about receiving the much needed support.
“Ask any author out there about how hard it is to sell your book, and you will know just how wonderful this solution is. Diverse authors have it even harder because of the perception that diverse books don’t sell,” says Oh. “To have First Book offer to purchase 10,000 for a new, unpublished author is guaranteeing them a successful print run for their debut book. It’s simply amazing and unprecedented.”
On May 14, the day following First Books’ announcement, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team hosted a Twitter Chat with Chandler Arnold, First Book’s COO, and Erica Perl, First Book’s vice president of publisher and author relations. The discussion covered a variety of topics from why their primary focus is on picture books to why it’s important they fund paperback versions of hardbacks that don’t sell out to how their book selection process works.
“Ellen Oh’s hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has really caught the imagination of a very large group of people, and it’s heightened public debate and that’s critical,” says Kyle Zimmer, president and CEO of First Book. “The next paragraph has to be how do we fix this? And I think the First Book project is a strong answer to how we can fix this.”
When speaking of diversity as a critical issue in publishing, Zimmer goes on to say, “I’ve got two kids of my own, and what I know about this next generation is that they…will have to confront and embrace a global world. If we ill prepare [kids] by only giving them stories that reflect an affluent white culture, shame on us.”
This isn’t the first time that First Book has advocated for diversity in kid lit. Since 1992, the nonprofit has provided more than 100 million new books and resources to serve the kids and families from the lowest 30 percent of the socioeconomic strata in the United States and Canada—about 45 percent of American kids. Last year, First Book’s “Stories for All Project”—as covered by School Library Journal— purchased $1 million worth of diverse titles from HarperCollins and Lee & Low Books.
“First Book’s approach is incredible. They are addressing the #WeNeedDiverseBooks issue head on through bold and innovative initiatives like ‘The Stories for All Project,’” says Craig Low, president of Lee & Low Books, a multicultural publisher. “This latest initiative will now provide a brand new opportunity for authors and illustrators who have been underrepresented in children’s books. It is extremely important for the publishing world to see this deep commitment so that more publishers can feel more confident about selling diverse books.”
Reaching about 10 percent of kids from low-income families in the United States, First Book has experienced dramatic growth in the past year with over 7,000 new educators and program leaders signing up every month. (Librarians at Title 1 schools can get free and low cost books by registering with First Book.)
“I think that school librarians have long been leaders in talking about the need for books that reflect the kids in their schools,” says Zimmer. “They’re the front line people who know the difference they can make for a kid to see themselves and to see others in the best children’s literature.”
Yin Mei is a freelancer and Minnesotan who has lived in the Bay Area, New York, France, and China. She enjoys covering topics from China’s social media trends to education in the United States. Follow her @MeiThoughts.