#WeNeedDiverseBooks: A World of Change in Just One Year


We Need Diverse Books began as a hashtag that went viral, and in less than a year, it has grown into a strong, multi-faceted non-profit organization that is changing the face of children’s and young adult literature. In this article, author Karen Sandler shares how the campaign began, how it grew so fast, and where it stands one year later.

When BookCon announced the “superstar panel” of the “world’s biggest children’s authors” set to appear at its 2014 conference, it had no idea it was lighting a fuse that would set off an explosion in the book world. BookCon’s “unprecedented lineup of authors” were all-male and all-white, a lack of diversity that was stunning but not-at-all unprecedented. One of the first to express dismay was author Ellen Oh, who had been advocating for more diversity in children’s literature for years. Change had been tough to come by in previous years, but in 2014, Ellen had a new tool available in the fight for diverse kid lit: social media. She had a secret weapon to reach the collective voice and energy of thousands who were more than ready for change.

So when Ellen tweeted on April 17th, “to be honest, I’m tired of small. I want BIG!” she had the means to start a wildfire. Like-minded authors, editors, librarians, and bloggers jumped on board, tweeting in response that they wanted to be part of the “BIG” that Ellen had alluded to.

A #Hashtag that Caught Fire

Within days, a group of more than two dozen convened via private email, collectively coming up with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and a plan for a three-day campaign:

  • May 1st: Raise awareness about the need for diversity in children’s and young adult literature by encouraging readers to post selfies with the now-famous We need diverse books because… handwritten signs.
  • May 2nd: Brainstorm solutions with a Twitter chat.
  • May 3rd: Take action by buying diverse books and posting photos of them on Twitter.

Even with just two weeks of organization and promotion, the campaign took the internet by storm. There were 107,000 tweets over the three-day campaign and deluge of media coverage. Seeing themselves called out on social media, BookCon contacted the group to set up a We Need Diverse Books panel for its May 31st conference. Ellen was joined by WNDB team members and powerhouse authors Jacqueline Woodson and Matt de la Peña, who presented to a standing-room-only crowd. That day, the group announced its WNDB in the Classroom initiative, as well as its plans for a 2016 Diversity Festival.

Making It Official

Seeing the immense popular support for its initiatives, the team took next steps in late July, filing for non-profit status and establishing its executive board. The We Need Diverse Books™ website went live, joining a social media platform that included Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Pinterest. The organization announced the initial members of the WNDB Advisory Board: Jacqueline Woodson, Grace Lin, Matt de la Peña, Cindy Pon, and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

As summer turned to autumn, the campaign continued to pick up steam. In October, the organization announced the foundation of its Walter Dean Myers Award (AKA, “The Walter”), for excellence in diverse children’s literature. Then WNDB released a series of “flowchart” graphics to help readers select diverse children’s books. WNDB in the Classroom followed, an initiative in partnership with An Open Book Foundation to bring diverse authors and books into schools. Another partnership, this with American Booksellers Association and School Library Journal, would produce Booktalking Kits for teachers, librarians, and booksellers.

The WNDB team knew that these initiatives and others in the planning stages would need funding, so in late October the organization kicked off an Indiegogo fundraising campaign. It took only three weeks to reach their initial $100,000 goal, enough to fund the Walter Awards through 2016, as well as the WNDB Internship Program, which would offer grants to under-represented applicants for publishing internships.

A Series of Unfortunate Comments

On the evening of November 19th, Jacqueline Woodson received the National Book Award for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. Her acceptance speech was received with a standing ovation, then ceremony host Daniel Handler (AKA, Lemony Snicket) took the podium and shared an anecdote about Woodson that he thought the audience would find humorous. Instead, the audience (and all those following online) found his racially-charged remarks to be painfully inappropriate. The ensuing social media firestorm led to him contacting WNDB to help make amends. Handler made a full-throated apology in conjunction with a #CelebrateJackie campaign on Twitter.

As part of that campaign, Handler committed to match donations to WNDB’s Indiegogo campaign for the subsequent week. Supporters of Woodson and WNDB took advantage of his offer, ramping up their donations. This additional surge of donations brought the total raised to $320,000—more than three times the original goal.

Having this level of financial support allowed WNDB to accelerate their initiatives, including a full rollout of several programs:

  • The Walter Award for an outstanding book written by a diverse author, which will be announced in February 2016
  • The Walter Grants, which will be given to five unpublished writers whose background and work is diverse
  • The Internship Program, which provides supplemental grants to publishing interns, which is in progress, the recipients to be announced by late spring
  • The Booktalking Kits for teachers, librarians, and booksellers, which will debut in May 2015.
  • WNDB in the Classroom, which brings diverse books and authors into Title I school classrooms, providing free books and personal interaction with diverse authors. This initiative started in Washington DC in February 2015.
  • WNDB Mentorship program, which will begin its application and selection in 2015, and will match writers and illustrators with mentors for one year in 2016.
  • The WNDB Diversity Festival, which will be held on July 24, 2016.

As we approach the first anniversary of the initial social media campaign, it’s astounding to look back at what WNDB has accomplished in only a year. It’s thanks to the tireless efforts of its volunteer team members and enthusiasm of its supporters, but it’s also because the fact can no longer be denied: We Need Diverse Books.

Karen SandlerKaren Sandler is the author of nineteen novels for adults, as well as Tankborn, Awakening, and Rebellion, a YA science fiction trilogy from Lee & Low Books. She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Read more about her work at http://www.karensandler.net/

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