We Need Diverse Books Is 5 Years Old. We Asked 15 People How It Changed Publishing.

by Kerri Jarema
Originally Published: 
Photos courtesy of Helen Melville, Ibi Zoboi, Shelly Romero, Adrian Buckmeister, Zoraida Cordova, Amanda Shih, Joanna Cardenas, and Patrice Caldwell

When We Need Diverse Books was founded by a team of writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals, it was meant to shake up the publishing industry from the inside. Led by the original Executive Committee — Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, Marieke Nijkamp, Miranda Paul, Aisha Saeed, Karen Sandler, and Ilene Wong — and supported by the original PR team — Stacey Lee and SE Sinkhorn — We Need Diverse Books was created to fight for more diversity in children's and young adult book publishing at every level, among authors, editors, marketers, agents, publishers, and more. First and foremost, they wanted authors from marginalized communities to be given opportunities to have their voices heard in the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cisgender industry. And the results have been clear.

In the five years since WNDB's founding, authors like Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give), Jenny Han (To All the Boys I've Loved Before), and Nicola Yoon (The Sun is Also a Star), and many others have garnered awards, hit bestseller lists, and even seen their books turned into widely-beloved films.

And although recent diversity stats in publishing prove there is still so much work to be done — for example: authors from marginalized communities still need to be given more opportunities to write diverse stories about joy, not just pain — We Need Diverse Books and its many supporters in the industry have never been in a better position to be able to do that work. Below 15 authors, editors, publicists, agents and others in the literary world share why they believe We Need Diverse Books has changed publishing forever, and what they hope for the future:

Heidi Heilig, Author

Heidi Heilig, photo courtesy of Adrian Buckmeister

"Five years ago, I had just sold my debut novel, The Girl from Everywhere, and I was an absolute newbie to publishing. Trying to navigate strange new waters, I dipped my toes into book twitter, and one of the first major things I saw was WNDB making waves. It was absolutely thrilling!

As a mentally ill person of color, I'd written my first novel because, while I loved reading fantasy, I seldom found myself there. But in WNDB, I saw thousands of people, many of them just like me, demanding stories about ourselves, and it made me feel like there was a place for me in publishing.

There is a line in my first book that keeps coming to mind: "To be known was to exist." In the last five years, WNDB has made space for new voices to be known, for new books to exist. And I don't think they plan to stop any time soon."

Lisa Moraleda, Director of Publicity at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing

Lisa Moraleda, photo courtesy of Moraleda

“We Need Diverse Books launched after I had already begun a career in publishing a decade prior, so witnessing the major shifts within the industry these past five years, especially as a person of color, has been rewarding.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with insanely talented authors and illustrators of color (I am especially proud of the books published under the Salaam Reads and upcoming Denene Millner imprints), and our recent summer intern was a recipient of a WNDB Internship Grant — something I never could have imagined when I first entered publishing years ago.

I have faith that the landscape of publishing will continue to change to better reflect our society, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that change.”

Zoraida Córdova, Author

Zoraida Córdova, photo courtesy of the author

"We Need Diverse Books has changed the industry in more ways than we know. My hope is that we're going to see lasting effects for years to come. I remember a time when editors, agents, and authors sneered at the idea of brown and black bodies on book covers. Even some who believed the previous statement have changed their language and/or belief after seeing the books that are topping the bestseller lists.

There are still microaggressions. Back in 2008 when I queried my first novel, I had responses from agents that went verbatim: 'We already have a Latino story for the season.' No one would dare say that now. The impacts of WNDB has been to solidify the truth that all stories are universal and that inclusivity means having so many voices representing a culture that we shatter the myth of the monolith.

More and more we see readers of all backgrounds care deeply about representation and those readers vote with their wallets. Besides that, I am an optimist. WNDB is a force for good and change, putting books into the hands of children."

Joanna Cardenas, Editor at Penguin Random House

Joanna Cardenas, photo courtesy of Cardenas

"Happy fifth anniversary, We Need Diverse Books, and a special shout-out to the women of color who founded the organization! Thank you for imagining a children’s publishing landscape that’s inclusive and for challenging the industry to make that the standard. Your grassroots efforts have inspired more people to join this movement, and it has created a sense of community that connects publishers, authors and illustrators, booksellers, educators, and young readers.

Your initiatives impact all aspects of publishing because you understand that that’s the path to meaningful, long-lasting change. Your tireless work to serve young readers by holding our industry accountable is something we all benefit from, and I’m grateful."

Patrice Caldwell, Author & Founder of People of Color in Publishing

Patrice Caldwell, photo courtesy of Caldwell

"I honestly don’t know if I would’ve accomplished as much as I have, as soon as I did, without We Need Diverse Books. We Need Diverse Books directly inspired me to start People of Color in Publishing. I’m forever grateful to them for all their resources. I cannot understate how amazing it was to be entering the industry as they were revitalizing such an important conversation.

They do so much to recognize authors, to support classrooms and libraries and publishing hopefuls via their internship program. I’m super excited about how the organization will continue to expand. We Need Diverse Books provides so much to so many areas, and it’s my hope they’re able to raise the funds necessary for all their programs.

So many of us [are] at a point where we know it’s time to move past diversity 101 to really work on showing that diverse books do sell and that we need to invest, on a wider and deeper level, in marginalized creators and publishing professionals. We Need Diverse Books has and will continue to lead that charge."

Thao Le, Literary Agent at Sandra Dijkstra & Associates

Thao Le, photo courtesy of Stephen Chong

"We Need Diverse Books has forced the children’s publishing industry to face its uncomfortable reality: that our books are predominantly white, straight, and cisgender and cater to a white, straight, cisgender readership.

While we still need to make more progress, I think WNDB has succeeded in making the gatekeepers of our industry confront their biases and hopefully, conversations will continue so that those in power can make the necessary changes and hire more diverse creators, editors, publishing staff, and executives.

They’ve made some strides in children’s books and what I hope for the future is that they’ll be able to bring their influence over to the adult arena of publishing as well."

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Author

Cynthia Leitich Smith, photo courtest of Sam Bond Photography

"As a Native author, I remember when the so-called 'multicultural boom' of the ‘90s went bust and an industry pro suggested that I might sell another Native-focused book if Kevin Costner made another Dances with Wolves movie. When I reflected on the prospects for Native children’s-YA lit, I danced with cynicism and sidestepped hope.

Then We Need Diverse Books inspired and, more importantly, directed a rising wave of support and resulting strategic resources so that, say, Native book creators were no longer presumed dependent on the creative whims of a Hollywood white savior. These days, when I hit the author conference circuit, I’m not the only Native woman in the mix. That feels spectacular. We’re not only still here, we’re rising in strength and numbers. Looking forward, we're resolved to continue succeeding together, no matter the pushback. And by 'we,' I mean all of us underrepresented characters reflecting various identity elements under the diverse books umbrella.

Characters in real life and on the page. It’s a critical conversation that’s more than talk. It’s disruptive, enthusiastic, effective action in service of every young reader to proclaim the truth that any kid can be a hero that everybody cheers."

Amanda Shih, Associate Editor at Scholastic

Amanda Shih, photo courtesy of Shih

"There’s always more to accomplish, but in the last few years, the kinds of stories and creators that are receiving major support both from readers and publishers has changed dramatically. There are books out now that I never dreamed would be possible as a younger reader or editor.

I’ve seen major publishers make great strides in making their internship and entry level hiring more inclusive, and creating programs that support these individuals after hiring. My hope is that going forward, the publishing community continues to have thoughtful conversations about representation and inclusion in every department and at every seniority level in the industry.

I hope we can focus not just on hiring but on retention within the industry, and ensure that a broad range of storytelling becomes the norm, not just a trend or a selling point. We Need Diverse Books is an invaluable resource to everyone in publishing — their example, and the voices and projects they amplify help all of us serve our readers and our industry better."

Renée Ahdieh, Author

Renée Ahdieh, photo courtesy of Crystal Stokes

"It's gratifying to watch the strides We Need Diverse Books has made over the last few years. I also believe it inspires me to work with even more determination because I know there is still quite a ways to go. I long for a time when inclusive books are not considered a "trend." I've never believed my life to be a trend or the types of books I write to fit a certain mold.

We need both issue-based books and we need books in which the diversity is incidental to the narrative, so that — one day — it becomes simply about telling the best kind of story in the best kind of way. WNDB has been such a pivotal part of making that dream a reality, and I look forward to seeing a day when such things are no longer the exception, but the rule."

Emily Heddleson, Associate Director, Educational Marketing & Conventions at Scholastic

Emily Heddleson, photo courtesy of Heddleson

"We Need Diverse Books has been a necessary force holding the book community accountable for sharing authentic portrayals of underrepresented and marginalized people and communities. With the hunger for more diverse content across all areas of the market, we’ve been able to support and share new voices and stories in a way that hasn’t been possible before.

There’s an emerging awareness of the importance of diversity in all aspects of the book creation, review, and selection process, and I am eager to see us continue to grow and evolve as an industry. I’m particularly looking forward to working with We Need Diverse Books on initiatives and partnerships to meet the goals they have set for their next five years so that we can move closer to the dream of having all children see themselves represented in books."

Alexandra Hernandez, Publicity Manager at Levine Querido

Alexandra Hernandez, photo courtesy of Tess Thomas

“As a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, and a fangirl of all things comics, fairy tales and space operas, I’ve always longed to see myself in the pages of my books. Growing up, making weekly trips to the bookstore, I hoped I would find that book where a girl who looked and spoke like me would be fighting monsters and getting their happily ever after.

WNDB is not only making those dreams come true with their mission and community, but they’re also urging writers and readers like me to be fearless with our storytelling, to be advocates for ourselves and to own our place in the industry.

By creating this powerhouse movement, I have found my own voice in spaces like a writing workshop, the conference room or at a book festival. I know for a fact it’s what’s led me to The New School, and now, Levine Querido, whose primary goal is putting diverse books in children’s hands. My passion for raising marginalized voices has been elevated year after year, and I know I have WNDB to thank for paving the way.”

Shelly Romero, Editorial Assistant at Scholastic

Shelly Romero, photo courtesy of Romero

"As a young Latina editor, the impact and work of We Need Diverse Books has been incredibly inspiring. It’s a reminder of why I’m in this career. I’m Honduran-American and unfortunately, I didn’t grow up seeing myself represented in books. Thanks to WNDB, we’re seeing a shift occur.

We’re seeing that the industry is slowly acknowledging that diversity isn’t, and shouldn’t be considered, a trend. We’ve also seen an impact to the diversity makeup of the industry’s professionals thanks to opportunities like WNDB”s internship grants. The industry doesn’t just change when we publish diverse authors, but when we also hire and support diverse professionals.

All in all, I’m very hopeful for the future. I look forward to seeing more diverse authors get book deals. I hope to be a champion for those much-needed books. And I look forward to a future where I can one day see a young Honduran-American as the hero of their story — because I needed that representation in books as a kid and there are kids out there that still do."

Namrata Tripathi, VP & Publisher of Kokila Books at Penguin Random House

Namrata Tripathi, photo courtesy of Helen Melville

"We know that over the last five years, We Need Diverse Books has helped authors, illustrators, and young professionals from underrepresented backgrounds break into publishing. They have also created a space for people doing this work to find each other and build community.

But I am particularly grateful that they have introduced a vocabulary of change so that more people have the language to express and understand the ways in which they too can be part of creating a more representative, diverse, and equitable industry.

Over the next five years, I hope the organization will continue to emphasize the importance of diversity, representation, and inclusion in every aspect of the publishing process and protect the phrase “we need diverse books” from becoming divorced from its true meaning or distanced from the readers it serves.

Ann Marie Wong, Senior Editorial Director, Scholastic Book Clubs

Ann Marie Wong, photo courtesy of Wong

"Thinking back on my own childhood, I imagine what it would have been like to open a Book Clubs catalog and pick any section, mystery or humor or fantasy or realistic fiction or nonfiction, and maybe see someone who looks like me or thinks like me or struggles like me. And that’s why I’m so happy and proud of the partnership between Scholastic Book Clubs and We Need Diverse Books in creating special catalog collections that do just that.

Together we are elevating marginalized voices and experiences, making them affordable and accessible and making the classroom a more inclusive environment. I think the publishing industry as a whole has risen to the challenge in creating authentic stories that truly speak to kids today, and that’s in no small part due to WNDB’s influence.

But we still have a ways to go. My hope is that our special collections show the demand and the excitement is there for more books across all age groups and reading levels. . . and it’s not going away."

Ibi Zoboi, Author

Ibi Zoboi, photo courtesy of the author

"We Need Diverse Books has had a tremendous impact on the children’s book industry because it sparked a much-needed and overdue conversation about such a basic human right: stories that reflect all children. That 2014 movement was a perfect storm of social media engagement, frustration by both authors and readers alike, and the industry’s continuous exclusion of diverse voices. It was simultaneously a revolutionary and fundamental ask.

WNDB along with statistics from the CCBC (Children’s Cooperative Book Center) and the voices of the many advocates in our industry pulled back the curtains and let us know how this lack of diverse books was such an injustice. The hashtag was more than a clarion call, it was an indictment.

Moving forward, I hope we can all raise our voices for the need for diversity within diversity. We can also extend this need for diversity across all areas of our industry. We need diverse reviewers, librarians, teachers who will have the lived experience and wherewithal to unpack our books for young readers. We need diverse scholars and educators who will subvert the canon, the form, and many of our hierarchical systems of selecting and lauding books."

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Dhonielle Clayton's position at We Need Diverse Books. She is Chief Operating Officer.

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