In 2014 children’s author Ellen Oh tweeted her frustration about an all-White-male panel at an upcoming book convention. The outrage that followed — from White women as well as people of color — led to the hashtag WeNeedDiverseBooks. It went viral.
“It’s kind of like ‘Horton Hears a Who.’ We were finally able to be heard outside our little ball of fluff,” said Oh, who is Korean American and had previous conversations with others whose identities were not well represented in children’s publishing. Oh wanted more than words.
“I’m a very solution-oriented person,” she said. “We actually have to do things to make change happen.”
Oh and a half-dozen other authors, illustrators and book industry professionals, started the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books with the aim to shake up the industry.
The organization has done so with a dizzying array of programs. It has offered grants to unpublished authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds. It has created awards for authors and independent booksellers. There’s a mentorship program, a publishing internship grant, three short story collections and a partnership with Scholastic Book Club. And it has donated about 20,000 books to public schools.
Oh said she has seen the publishing world — although still dominated by books by and about White people — move away from the long-held idea that diverse books don’t sell. Authors used to hear, “We already have an Asian story or we already have a Black book,” she said. “What you now have is a desire and hunger for more stories about diversity.”
That desire may come from a changing idea of why diverse books are essential.
“When we began we thought it was necessary for everyone to see themselves in the pages of a book,” Oh said.
In the past several years, the organization’s focus broadened.
“Diversity had to be for every kid,” she said. “Otherwise we will never learn empathy, and we will never grow.”
Oh is hopeful children’s publishers will continue to embrace diverse authors and the power of their stories. “There are so many stories out there of people whose minds have been changed by reading a book.”
Oh, several other children’s authors and illustrators, and Washington Post children’s reviewers share their favorite books of 2020 below.
Ellen Oh, author of “The Dragon Egg Princess,” picks
By Christina Soontornvat
(Candlewick, ages 8 to 12)
Once in a while, I fall hard for a book and just can’t stop thinking about it. “A Wish in the Dark” is that book. A Thai-inspired “Les Miserables,” set in a magical version of Thailand, anchored in themes of law and social justice, but centered by the beautiful human relationships that make up the heart of this story. It is absolutely enthralling. I fell in love with the characters and the world building and long after I’d finished, it still lives in my heart, leaving me dreaming of hope and light in times of darkness.
Lamar Giles, author of the Legendary Alston Boys series, picks
By Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
(Roaring Brook, ages 4 to 8)
In this beautifully rendered work, a child contemplates the perception of “Black,” noting its place among the spectrum of rainbow colors and the world as a whole. From Black culture to Black history, readers are treated to lovely examples of Black woven throughout the everyday (“Black is the skillet for bread to fry”) and the legendary (“Black was the man who gave the world his dream.”) Joy’s words and Holmes’s art are a perfect pairing where the verse is as vivid as the paints and collage. Children (and parents) of all colors will be rereading this one plenty.
Christine Day, author of the upcoming “The Sea in Winter,” picks
By Brandy Colbert
(Little, Brown, ages 8 to 12)
Set in a coastal California town, this book follows the budding friendship between Alberta and Edie. In many ways, they’re opposites: Alberta is a surfer, her loving fathers met in a commune, and she only eats butter pecan ice cream; Edie is the new girl from Brooklyn, her parents are recently divorced, and she wears dark clothes and black lipstick. But despite their differences, the girls bond over their shared Blackness, as well as a mystery unearthed in Edie’s attic. With its endearing characters, suspenseful twists, and heartfelt moments, this book is pure excellence.
John Parra, illustrator of “The Power of Her Pen,” picks
By Beth Ferry, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
(HMH, ages 4 to 7)
The story of a bumpy road to an unlikely friendship between retired Captain Swashby, a big grouch of a man, perfectly content to live a quiet life next to his only companion the sea, and his newly arrived neighbors, a friendly granny and her lively and inquisitive little granddaughter. With charming and playful illustrations and diverse characters by Juana Martinez-Neal, and a snappy sweet narrative by Beth Ferry, this story moves our hearts and reminds us to stay open to new friends and ideas, and be present in life’s moments of adventure.
Picks by Mary Quattlebaum
By Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
(Little, Brown, ages 8 to 12)
Short monologues and radiant art combine in a dynamic work of historical fiction. On their small farm, Loretta, Roly and Aggie B. — characters based on members of the author’s family — contend with the racism of the Jim Crow South. But in 1962, when 12-year-old Aggie B. volunteers to help register Black people to vote, Loretta and Roly must grapple with their fears and hopes for change.
By Rosanne Parry, illustrated by Lindsay Moore
(Greenwillow, ages 8 to 12)
Watch sea otters and battle a giant wave, along with Vega and Deneb. Two young orcas search for lost family, meet unique friends and deal with the dangerous impact of pollutants and global warming on their undersea world, which is vividly rendered in this novel through words and pictures.
By Linda Sue Park
(Clarion, ages 10 to 13)
There’s a new girl in town, in 1880s South Dakota, and she wields needle and thread with determination and pride. Sewing skills learned from her late mother, a Chinese immigrant, help 14-year-old Hanna and her White father to combat the town’s racially motivated resistance to their dress goods business. This engaging historic novel explores the place and time of the classic “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, from an Asian American perspective.
By Naomi Shihab Nye
(Greenwillow, ages 8 to 12)
Trash is poetic treasure in this intriguing collection of verse by the current Young People’s Poet Laureate. Nye’s keen eye for the small, revealing detail — a comforting pine cone, a lost mitten — encourages us to notice and perhaps write about the odd, stray things that surround us.
By Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright
(Graphix/Scholastic, ages 8 to 12)
In this lively, touching graphic novel, twins and best friends Maureen and Francine navigate sixth grade, new interests and the frequently confusing changes in their relationship. Tensions rise, and soon sister is pitted against sister in the election for class president — an election that roils family and friends as well.
Picks by Abby McGanney Nolan
By Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Josh Cochran
(Enchanted Lion, ages 6 and older)
Bright and bold as Keith Haring’s art, this book follows the artist’s ever-energetic creative drive. Author Burgess and illustrator Cochran show how generous a person he was, and how children played a central part in his life and work.
By Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
(Roaring Brook, ages 4 to 6)
Presenting an urgent message about protecting the Earth and its water, this book also inspires fresh appreciation for the world we have been given. The illustrations feature stunning scenes of radiant sunsets, shining waterways, watchful animals, and, not least, courageous Indigenous people, young and old, taking a stand against “a black snake that will destroy the land.”
By Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
(Little Brown, ages 12 and older)
Covering hundreds of years with ease, this adaptation of Kendi’s best-selling book for adults explores how the idea of white superiority has affected the course of American history. It also shows how major moves toward Black social equality have stirred a backlash involving violence and legal trickery.
By Veronica Chambers and staff members of the New York Times
(Versify/HMH, ages 8 to 12)
In a big election year, this book offers a fortifying and vibrantly illustrated introduction to some of the lesser known “brave and revolutionary women who fought for the right to vote.” It will remain valuable in years to come.
By Kenneth C. Davis
(Henry Holt, ages 12 and older)
In this clear-eyed chronicle of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Saddam Hussein, Davis asks important questions about the development of democracy and its flip side, autocracy. The book reveals how these leaders and their allies manipulated their fellow citizens, killing millions of people in their pursuit of power.
Picks by Kathie Meizner
By Jillian Tamaki
(Abrams, ages 4 to 8)
Everyone gets to help in the kitchen — picking produce from the garden, peeling carrots, mixing chili, carrying dishes and pans. It’s noisy and crowded, and no one knows (until it’s ready) just how it the meal turns out. But the people who come Wednesdays for the community dinner are happy to have one another, the food and the people in the kitchen.
By Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith
(Neal Porter/Holiday House, ages 4 to 8)
When the beginnings of words get tangled up and get stuck in his mouth, and certain sounds won’t work as they should, this boy falls quiet because of his stutter. But his father shows him how a river, running over rocks and through its banks, sounds much the same — sometimes rough, but sometimes smooth, sparkling in the sunlight.
By Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat
(Little, Brown, ages 3 to 7)
Iris is surprised when her little brother gets to press the elevator buttons, because she thought it was her job! But when she gets an elevator button of her own it opens the door to astonishing places, from a tropical forest to space, and Iris realizes that these are adventures that would be wonderful to share.
By Raul the Third, colors by Elaine Bay
(Versify/HMH, ages 4 to 8)
El Toro and the other luchadores are hungry before the big match. They send a message to their friend Little Lobo: Bring food soon. Fortunately, there are lots of delicious options! Dozens of food trucks have gathered, like the Taco Tuesday truck (with tacos every day!), Bronco’s Burritos, and Quique’s Quesadillas. And everyone likes churros — how about you?
By Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey
(Norton, ages 3 to 7)
A red truck is an important, hard-working part of the farm as a young girl grows up. Later, parked in the yard by the barn, it becomes an ocean explorer, an airship, a planetary rover. Grass grows longer around its wheels, and seasons pass by, until one day, the young woman, now a farmer herself, fixes up the old truck and it becomes part of the work again.