Book advocacy can take many forms, as NetGalley members know. A great example of this comes from We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in publishing. From fighting against book bans to supporting authors to championing industry workers, WNDB uses a wide range of resources to advocate for their mission. Here we spoke with Ellen Oh (CEO), Dhonielle Clayton (COO), Kaitlyn Sage Patterson (Development Director), and Caroline Richmond (Executive Director) to learn more about this incredible organization and the work they’re doing to make the book world a more inclusive place.
We Need Diverse Books was formed in 2014 in response to an all-white, all-male panel of children’s authors at BookCon that represented the lack of diversity in the industry. In the time since WNDB has worked to not only put diverse books into the hands of young readers but also to make the industry more inclusive at every level—how has it evolved over the last eight years?
We’re very excited at how WNDB has grown since we got our start as a hashtag (#WeNeedDiverseBooks) in 2014. In line with our initial goals, we continue to serve three main audiences:
- Diverse writers and illustrators
- Diverse publishing professionals
- Teachers, librarians, and students
We still run many of our original programs too, like our Walter Dean Myers Awards and our Internship Grants that help diversify the publishing industry from within; but we’ve expanded our initiatives as well. For instance, two of our newer programs include Rise Up, which supports diverse mid-career publishing professionals, and the Native Writing Intensive, which is a workshop for Native/First Nation writers.
One of the best parts of being a small, grassroots organization is that we are able to swiftly move and adapt to the changing landscape of publishing while also keeping a laser focus on our mission: creating a world in which everyone can find themselves in the pages of a book.
What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since the founding of WNDB? And what’s an area you hope to see more efforts directed towards from industry professionals and/or consumers?
We’ve seen a lot of positive change in the industry over the last eight years. If we look at the numbers, back in 2014 there were 293 children’s books published by people of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center Data. Fast forward to 2021 and this figure jumps to 1,237 books by authors of color—which is a fourfold increase. We certainly have not reached parity, but we’re proud of this shift.
However, just as we’ve seen the number of diverse titles for children increase in the eight years since our founding, we’ve observed a correlating rise in the number of diverse titles being banned in schools across our country. This isn’t just an issue for teachers and students—it’s a problem that will affect all of us and our freedom to read. Diverse books create resilience. They engender children with empathy. WNDB firmly believes that resilience and empathy are integral to a more compassionate, intelligent, and joyful life. For everyone.
As you mentioned, book bans and attempts at censorship are currently spreading across the U.S. and are disproportionately impacting diverse titles and authors. Can you tell us more about WNDB’s initiatives for combating book banning and protecting intellectual freedom?
Our next campaign, Books Save Lives, will address the book bans that have swept across our country at an alarming rate. WNDB is committed to taking action in a way that ensures real change and takes the onus of action off of those most affected: students and teachers. With that in mind, Books Save Lives takes a three-pronged approach to addressing censorship. The Books Save Lives Grant will allocate up to $10,000 per each anonymously nominated school to purchase diverse titles for their libraries and classrooms—with the caveat that those books remain on shelves for at least four years. WNDB will also serve educators and students in Florida, who are navigating over 500 book bans currently, by providing materials, books, and resources via our grassroots partners there. Finally, we will support diverse authors whose works have been challenged via grants, publicity for challenged titles, and paid school visits to help bolster lost income.
What advice do you have for those working within organizations (such as publishers, bookstores, libraries, or schools) if they want to create change but aren’t the decision makers?
This is a difficult question because of the backlash we’re seeing that is personally affecting teachers and librarians who have long been our early supporters. It is hard to argue for people to stand firm in the face of ongoing harassment, especially when their jobs might be on the line. But that’s what it’s going to take. Every individual has to be vocal and push back to their best ability against the rising censorship attempts because there is so much at stake. We must use our voices and speak up and not stand silent against the movement to ban books. We must remember that there are more of us than them. But it will take all of us together to fight this wave of oppression.
What do you see as the best ways of supporting affected authors, as well as the librarians and teachers on the front lines?
It’s important that we show our support for the authors, many of whom are diverse, whose work is affected by these bans and soft censorship. The most impactful thing that you can do is buy their books, but you can also support them without spending a fortune on new titles! You can request banned books at your local library, write positive reviews, and spread the word about books you love. Every review, request, and purchase makes a difference.
Our educators are at the frontlines of this fight, and they are overworked, underpaid, and often purchasing books and other supplies for their classrooms to ensure that their students have access to everything they need. Oftentimes teachers and librarians only hear from parents and patrons who are unhappy about certain books. But if you can see them doing the work of diversifying shelves, let them know! Support their decisions to provide diverse stories for their classrooms by writing letters and emails to them and their administration.
Also, remember to vote. It’s more important than ever, especially as book bans steadily increase. School board elections usually don’t get a lot of attention, but oftentimes these board members can make decisions on what students can and can’t read. Read up on your local candidates and their platforms, and on voting day remind your friends and neighbors to head to the polls too.
WNDB has incredible internship, mentorship, and support programs for people looking to work in or currently working in the publishing industry. What impact have you seen because of these efforts?
From the early days at WNDB, we knew that we wanted to help diversify the industry from within and that started with internships. With the support and guidance of author Linda Sue Park, we established the Internship Grant initiative to provide living stipends for diverse publishing interns so that they could get their foot in the door and not have to worry about making rent, paying for transportation, etc.
We’ve awarded over 100 of these grants since 2015 and over 70% of our recipients (who are not still enrolled in college or graduate school) have found full-time work in publishing! Some of them are now acquiring their own books as editors.
What effect has the pandemic had on the work of diversifying the publishing industry?
One positive effect is that some publishers are considering hybrid and remote job positions, which can help more diverse professionals enter and stay in the industry. Historically, one of the reasons it has been tough to diversify publishing is because so much of it is based in expensive cities like New York and Boston. This becomes a barrier of entry to many diverse employees, and more remote jobs can help bring in a more inclusive workforce.
But there is still much work to be done. Salaries remain low across the industry, and many diverse employees still have to navigate burnout, microaggressions, lack of upward mobility, etc. That’s why we created our Rise Up initiative in early 2022 to provide support to mid-career diverse publishing professionals and to address these issues.
You’re kicking off 2023 with an exciting event: The Walter Awards, named for Walter Dean Myers. What was the inspiration behind the creation of this award and how has it evolved over time?
We established the Walter Awards to celebrate diverse books by diverse authors and to donate copies of the titles to schools and libraries nationwide. Every year, we purchase 4,000 copies of our winning books and send them to educators across the country. It’s important for us not only to recognize excellence in diverse literature, but to get these books to where they’re needed most—into the hands of young readers.
In the first few years of the award, we selected one winner in the Young Adult category, but then we added a Younger Readers category that encompasses middle-grade titles and picture books for upper elementary grades. Down the road, we hope to add a Picture Book category as well.
Before we wrap up, would one of you like to share how you came to work for WNDB?
Caroline Richmond: I’m currently the Executive Director of WNDB, but I actually got my start as a volunteer during our very first fundraising campaign in 2014. Back then, I was a very new mom—my daughter was born in February and WNDB started trending as a hashtag about two months later! Even though I was living through that newborn fog, I knew I wanted to get involved with WNDB right away because I wanted my baby to grow up in a world where she could readily find books with characters that look like her. I didn’t have that as a kid, and I remember the pain of searching and searching for myself in the stories I read but coming up empty.
Personally, it has been a real joy for me to introduce my daughter (and her five-year-old brother) to the many books that feature Asian characters or biracial characters, like Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua. There are so many titles to choose from now! I’m very grateful that this kind of inclusivity is normal for them, that they won’t have to wait until high school or college or beyond to see themselves represented.
How can readers support or get involved with WNDB?
We’d love for you to join our Books Save Lives campaign on December 1st! Post a picture of yourself holding your favorite book and share it on your social media channels with the hashtag #BooksSaveLives. Tell us why this book helped save your life—maybe it made you realize that you aren’t alone in the world or it validated your identity for the first time.
We’d also love for you to visit our merch store and show your support for WNDB with some of our cool gear! Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that we’re raising money to fund our work around book banning, and you can donate to WNDB here.