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BEA 2014: #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Michael Moccio ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor

There has been so much conversation and dialogue about diversity—in publishing, in comic books, and in everyday life. If you’re one of the people whose tired of hearing about diversity, reconsider; those who are tired of hearing about diversity with no action or steps taken in the right direction, then #WeNeedDiverseBooks is the campaign you’ve been waiting for.

Industry professionals, fans, and everyone in between criticized BEA and BookCon over their extreme lack of diversity. What was an unmarketed and relatively unknown panel ultimately became one of the best. Filled to capacity, room 1E02 and BEA/Book Con had the pleasure of being graced with the most important panel of the day (yes, this was absolutely more important than Stan Lee or The Fault in Our Stars).

The panel was comprised of various industry professionals including: Ellen Oh, the driving force behind #WeNeedDiverseBooks; Aisha Saeed, author of Written in the Stars; Marieke Nijkamp, founder of DiversifYA; Lamar Giles, author of Fake ID; Mike Jung, author of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities; Grace Lin, author of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon; Matt de la Peña, author of The Living; and Jacqueline Woodson, author of Beneath a Meth Moon. I. W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above, moderated the panel.

The bottom line is that representation matters. As Marieke Nijkamp said during the panel, “The makeup of our stories is not reflective of the makeup of our society.” What followed included inspirations words that challenged the publishing industry to tackle representation of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, persons with disability, and all experiences not found in the majority of people. Diversity in all books should be a priority for anyone who wants children to read more, as studies show that children who see themselves in the books they read will, inevitably, read more.

When Ellen Oh took the stage, the crowd erupted in cheers. Her words resonated with everyone in the room as she recounted stories of hearing how people referred to diversity as “a hot new trend.” The panelist and attendees agreed with Oh’s assertion that their lives—diversity and their experiences—aren’t a trend. This is revolution that has to happen and has to happen soon.

There were several major announcements that followed. Oh announced that #WeNeedDiverseBooks would partner with National Association’s Read Across America and First Books to get diverse books in schools all across the country. Oh also took the time to plug two fantastic opportunities for writers of color to become published: Tu Books’ second annual New Visions Award is open to submissions and Lee & Low Books’ fifteenth annual New Voices Award—more information about each can be found here and here, respectively. This is a fantastic opportunity for a clearer entrance into the industry by minority professionals.

While some naysayers may espouse the need for diversity and claim that only good writing and storytelling will propel a book forward to audiences. They should take note the words of panelist Peña, who said “this campaign isn’t about either/or, but also.” These opportunities don’t squash the already voluminous opportunities for writers of the majority; these opportunities seek to give opportunities to writers and authors who face the society in which we live, where implicit barriers and attitudes about race, sexuality, gender, religion, and socioeconomic background often block these incredibly talented authors the opportunity to have their work look at unhindered by unintended social bias.

The final announcement was by far the most impactful: the #WeNeedDiverseBooks announced that the campaign would launch a Diversity Festival in DC in 2016. Featured would be authors and professionals representing the spectrum of minorities to give full representation in a completely accessible format.

The last half hour of the panel saw the panelists answering questions posed by Gregorio. They all talked about how they didn’t see themselves represented in books growing up and speculated on how much it would have meant to them as children to read those books. Peña, again, interjected words of wisdom, as he recalled a talk done by Junot Diaz he attended several years ago; purportedly, Diaz talked about how super villains in comic books hadn’t seen themselves reflected in the mirror and in society, which translates into the importance of telling and representing all stories, not just cis-gendered, abled, straight, middle class, white male protagonists.

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