A standing-room-only crowd, along with dozens of others sitting in staggered rows on the floor, attended the We Need Diverse Books panel at the most recent ALA Midwinter conference in Boston. A mainstay at ALA, BookExpo America (BEA), and New York Comic-Con (NYCC), the We Need Diverse Books campaign continues to engage followers and supporters throughout the year. Moderated by YA author Malinda Lo (Inheritance), this panel featured four additional YA authors: Kody Keplinger, whose bestseller The DUFF was turned into a film of the same name in 2014; Adam Silvera, author of the bestselling More Happy Than Not; and debut authors Marieke Nijkamp and Heidi Heilig.
Silvera shared the frustrations of trying to find a publisher for cult favorite More Happy Than Not, as he was asked to create a gay character or a Puerto Rican character, but not both. (Thankfully, he didn’t follow this advice.) Arguing that labels can be harmful and misleading, Keplinger briefly chatted about her upcoming novel, Run, describing it as a story about friendships and frenemies instead of a “disabled book” or an “LGBTQ book.” All panelists agreed that librarians should promote diverse books to their patrons as they would any other book, since characters can be relatable regardless of gender or genre.
When asked whether it’s acceptable for people to write outside of their own experiences, Keplinger asserted that we’ve [minorities] all been asked to read books about people who don’t share our experiences and expected to relate. Answering the same question, Nijkamp spoke passionately about her lifelong search for books she could relate to and stated plainly she’s written “lots” of straight characters, earning laughter from the crowd.
By the end, nearly 100 people made their way to the room with several others standing and listening just outside. The takeaway was to be open to learning and listening before writing about cultures other than your own—and that it’s more than welcome.