More than a half-century ago, Ezra Jack Keats published “The Snowy Day,” his groundbreaking picture book that featured an African American child. The intervening years have seen many sincere efforts to provide children and young readers with more books that reflect the rich diversity of the United States, but by and large, the shelves have remained as white as freshly fallen snow.
In 2014, there was nothing unusual about “Blockbuster Reads,” a panel announced for BookCon, a convention that meets annually in New York. The panel offered fans a chance to meet “the kids’ authors that dazzle”: Jeff Kinney, James Patterson, Rick Riordan and Lemony Snicket. But for young-adult author Ellen Oh, that all-white, all-male presentation was another example of a persistent problem in the publishing industry.
Oh and her friends and colleagues launched a small protest on social media that quickly grew under the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Soon, thousands of people were retweeting and liking the group’s comments. About two dozen writers and publishing insiders determined not to let their good energy dissipate. The group evolved into a nonprofit organization dedicated to “putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.”
During its short life, We Need Diverse Books has already raised money to fund grants for writers and illustrators; internships for people interested in publishing; and a list to help booksellers, librarians and teachers discover books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds. The organization also has sponsored contests, seminars and author visits to schools and given away thousands of award-winning books.
This week marks an impressive new milestone for We Need Diverse Books. Oh, the group’s chief executive and president, has edited and published WNDB’s first anthology: “Flying Lessons and Other Stories,” published by Crown Books for Young Readers. The book, aimed at readers between ages 8 and 12, features 10 stories by a who’s-who of contemporary YA literature, including Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson and Matt de la Peña. The anthology also includes the winning entry of the 2015 WNDB short-story contest, by debut author Kelly J. Baptist. All of the stories, except one by the late Walter Dean Myers, are new, and all of the authors have donated any profit from the sale of “Flying Lessons” to WNDB.
There are tales here about sports and family troubles, grief and love, friends and loneliness. Most are told by engaging first-person narrators. The tone shifts quickly between humor and poignancy. One story — by Alexander — is in verse; another — by Grace Lin — is set in ancient China.
Oh, a Korean American who lives in the Washington area, has seen firsthand just how important it is for all children to have creative models they can relate to. She recalls the day she visited a middle school and a young African American girl asked her to sign a copy of one of her books. “I always wanted to be a writer,” the girl told her, “but I never thought I could because I’m black.”
“Seeing me in person made the difference,” Oh says. “The only authors she’d ever seen were white.”
She hopes “Flying Lessons” will inspire other children of color, but she’s quick to point out that this new anthology should appeal to any young reader. “I truly believe in diversity as much for white kids as others,” she says. “That’s the beauty of ‘Flying Lessons.’ There’s something for everyone.”
Despite our current political atmosphere, Oh is optimistic about the future. “I think a lot of eyes have been opened,” she says. “And the industry as a whole cares about kids and cares about our future generation. They’re much more willing to embrace the idea that diverse books are actually good for all of us.”
WNDB already has plans to publish a YA anthology called “Lift Off” next year.
And here’s one more piece of good news: The U.S. Postal Service recently announced that Keats’s “The Snowy Day” will be honored on a set of stamps later this year.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
Edited by Ellen Oh
Crown. 218 pp. $16.99