We Need Diverse Books Celebrates 5th Anniversary, Sets Agenda for Next Five Years

Co-founder, executive director of We Need Diverse Books assess organization's impact and share plans for the future.

When author Ellen Oh co-founded We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) five years ago, the focus was on the importance of marginalized youth seeing themselves in books. Over the years, Oh has realized that they were taking too narrow a view by zeroing in on getting the books to kids from marginalized communities.

“While that is deeply important, just as important is the need for all children to read widely and diversely about all communities,” says Oh, the organization's CEO and president. “It's focusing on the importance of all aspects of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's groundbreaking essay of ‘Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors.’ So it has become increasingly important to talk about how diverse books are good for all children, all readers. In that way, we teach children empathy where none might have been before.”

WNDB is celebrating its 5th anniversary this month. The nonprofit organization was created to advocate changes in publishing “to help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”

2019 Walter Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy WNDB

In that relatively short time, it has created many programs and initiatives, including the Walter Dean Myers Awards, which “recognize diverse authors (or co-authors) whose works feature diverse main characters and address diversity in a meaningful way.” WNDB’s definition of diversity includes, but is not limited to, “a person of color, Native American, LGBTQIA, a person with a disability, and/or a member of a marginalized religious or cultural minority in the United States.”

Along with the Walter Awards, WNDB offers grants for aspiring creators from marginalized communities, grants for interns to work at publishing houses, a mentorship program, donates Walter Award-winning titles to classrooms, and has worked with Penguin Random House to create anthologies— Flying Lessons and Other Stories (2017) and Fresh Ink (2018)—and now The Hero Next Door, which will be published July 30.

The organization’s greatest impact, according to Oh, is dispelling the myth that diverse books don’t sell.

“What we've always believed is that these books can't sell if no one knows about them,” she says. “And the push, the focus, the celebration of diverse books that WNDB has made part of its mission is, I believe, a driving force of dispelling that myth.”

In the last five years, WNDB has watched as its message has gotten out, while increasing its number of volunteers and social media followers around the world. Thanks to the organization starting and amplifying the conversation about the importance of diverse books, WNDB has played a role in the changing publishing landscape as the number of diverse books published increases.

“Just witnessing the growth has signaled signs of promise and hope and also that people are paying attention and doing the work to make sure the books are being published,” says Nicole Johnson, WNDB’s executive director. “The second quantitative change is what we see on the New York Times bestseller list and the fact that there are increasingly more diverse books in the young adult list and the children’s list. So we are incredibly excited to see those changes happening.”

Unforeseen challenges

Of course, there have obstacles and unexpected challenges along the way.

“I think the term OwnVoices has become an unintentional challenge to all writers,” says Oh. “I disliked the term when it first came out because I felt it was limiting to all writers, and I see that problem happening in unexpected ways.

Ellen Oh
Photo by Robin Shotola

“What I like so much better is the term ‘informed by our experiences.’ which Cynthia Leitich Smith taught me to use. No writer is perfect. We are all human, and even at our best, we can still make mistakes. Using the OwnVoices term doesn't provide a writer with Teflon coating, although I feel like some publishers hope for that. And it especially feels dangerous when writers might not feel safe to claim what their ‘OwnVoices’ might be.”

When Johnson came to WNDB a little more than a year ago, Johnson was an outsider to the publishing world and found an obstacle she wasn’t expecting—a lack of standards in the editorial process.

“I would have assumed publishers had a better handle on editorial review,” she says. “I was a little surprised that there was a very lackadaisical approach to sensitivity readers. … We’re beginning to take a closer look, what does it look like when peer review is done right, when publishers assume more responsibility for the process and work with authors and work with reviewers in a more professional way, for lack of a better word.”

Don’t just check the “peer review” and “sensitivity reader” boxes, Johnson says, ask the important questions: Who was that person? Did it mean anything? Did the author take it seriously? Did you take it seriously? Was it effective?

The bias in the system is part of the reason the process is without standards. It was not seen as a priority in the past.

“Peer reviews [were] not necessary when it comes to perspective or cultural authenticity or representation,” she says. “Then it somehow became necessary so there was this thing created called sensitivity readers but, again, some people were very intentional about it and put structure around it and other folks were just sort of let the chips fall where they may and did it any kind of way.”

The next five

With that lack of standard in mind, and as part of its mission for the next five years, WNDB is also in the process of creating a partnership with a publisher to affect the way peer reviews and sensitivity reads are done.

“We are hoping to learn from them, gather information from others, and put together a process that will allow for both the author and the peer reviewer to feel like this was professional, credible, and really created a better work; it produced a better book,” says Johnson, who added that she couldn't name the publisher at this time. “That’s ultimately the goal.”

Nicole Johnson

Johnson and WNDB are focused on sustainability and accountability “both to our followers and volunteers and people who believe in our mission but also holding publishers and other organizations working with them to ensure we are accountable to each other for what gets produced and who has access to it.”

“We want to ensure that more young people have access to diverse books on their shelves, in their classrooms or their libraries or even at home,” says Johnson. “We want to make sure those books are getting out there and they are benefitting from being able to read them.”

The access piece is essential. As part of that mission, the organization is going to reach beyond its base of educators, authors, and people in publishing, and try to reach high schoolers and parents directly. The goal is to educate parents on the available resources and to teach young people not only where to access diverse books, but that they can create their own stories or consider a career in the industry.

“The pipeline can start really much earlier than it does to get young people excited about careers in publishing—not just on the creation side but the publishing, marketing sales,” Johnson says.

As for Oh, “For me personally, my greatest ‘what's next?’ is pretty ambitious,” she admits. “I want to be able to give over a million free copies of our Walter Award–winning books and our anthologies to schools and communities in need all over the country.”

That means more funding so they don’t have to turn down any teacher requests for books, she says.

“I know that's a huge challenge, but I feel like there are enough people out there who think this is a worthy enough challenge to join me,” says Oh. “And I thank them all from the bottom of my heart.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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