If you ran into a youth services librarian at the American Library Association (ALA) Conference in Las Vegas (June 26-July1), odds were good that they were sporting a colorful “We Need Diverse Books“ button. That recent campaign harnessed the collective power of social media to highlight the need for more resources depicting a range of cultures and experiences. Those buttons were a conspicuous sign of how the #weneeddiversebooks movement has gained traction in the reading community over the past few months.
Lee & Low, an independent publisher focused on diversity, created the buttons to amplify the online conversation. The publisher is generating materials to increase awareness around the lack of variety in children’s and young adult literature among teachers, parents, librarians, and caregivers.
Jason Low, publisher at Lee & Low, took over the Book Buzz stage Sunday afternoon to talk about the issue and the fact that children’s books about individuals of color has been “stagnating” in recent years at about 10 percent of all youth titles. Low talked about “moving the needle” beyond that lowly 10 percent mark and also addressed the components of a kid lit landscape that better reflects our pluralistic society. He warned against the tokenism and ghettoization of works about and by people of color within the larger landscape of children’s literature as “separate is not equal.” Lee & Low has produced a brochure 10 Steps to An All-Inclusive Reader to aid librarians working towards inclusive collections.
Responding to Low’s talk, Jennifer Rothschild, youth services librarian at Virginia’s Arlington Public Library, said that she she was seeing a new emphasis on diverse titles on the exhibit floor, in contrast to the ALA Midwinter Meeting in January 2014, when she was collecting data on multicultural titles for a conference project. Rothschild believes that the higher visibility of diverse books wasn’t necessarily because more had been published in the interim, “but because existing books are being pushed and being highlighted as they know that’s what we’re looking for.”
The #weneeddiversebooks hashtag also peppered the booths of larger publishers around the exhibit floor. This reflected the groundswell of support for authors, readers, and librarians standing up and asking for the resources to reflect their own experiences and better serve their patrons and to increase the number of quality materials “about everyone for everyone,” as Lee & Low’s credo states.
Low spoke about stretching beyond one’s own comfort zone to seek windows into others’ experiences as well as mirrors of one’s own. He also cited author Jennifer Weiner’s #colormyshelf appeal, asking for suggestions for multicultural authors and authentic description and urging people to buy them.
In addition, the publisher highlighted some conspicuous bright spots in increasingly authentic depictions of ethnic characters, particularly in Marvel Comics. For example, upon Peter Parker’s death, Spiderman’s “replacement” was a mixed-race superhero; and Miles Morales, and the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel, Kamala Kahn, is a Pakistani-American Muslim from Jersey City.
Low spoke about “a sense of urgency building right under the surface when it comes to diversity.” He used a number of recent titles to demonstrate how more diverse children’s books are being recognized for mainstream, rather than necessarily multicultural, awards. His mission, he said, involves “dispelling, once and for all, the myth that diverse books do not sell,” moving past a pattern of idealizing experiences that perpetuates the lack of authentic diversity, and being aware of problematic depictions in the books we already hold.
Rather than advocating “throwing out the classics,” Low urged librarians to be aware of difficult issues in books such as Lynne Reid Banks’s “Indian in the Cupboard” books or the “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The brochure suggests instead that librarians cultivate the ability to talk about the issues period texts raise with young readers. Low suggested that those problematic texts could be offset with the addition of “new classics” featuring more accurate cultural representations.
His message resonated with the audience. Carrie Kausch, a librarian at Falls Church High School in Virginia, voiced her particular concern around the gap between “the amount of girls wearing hijab versus the amount of books in our library with characters wearing hijab.”
Low closed by soliciting what he referred to as “Diversity 102” stories from librarians and readers. With 45 years of honored Coretta Scott King award winners and 18 years of Pura Belpré medalists, multicultural literature may finally be poised to enter the mainstream—if increasingly vocal children’s librarians have anything to do with it.
Wendy Stephens is a librarian at Cullman High School in Cullman, Alabama.