We Need Diverse Books: Following Up After Fouling Up | BookExpo 2017

Eager listeners gathered on Friday, June 2 for We Need Diverse Books: Following Up After Fouling Up: Real Talk About Real Apologies. Moderated by Boston University School of Education’s Laura M. Jiménez, the panel featured award-winning author Alex Gino; bestselling author Daniel José Older; LJ and SLJ Reviews Director Kiera Parrot; and author Ibi Zoboi, whose debut American Street was released in February 2017. (Justina Ireland, originally scheduled, was unable to attend.)

Jiménez offered a refresher of the mission of We Need Diverse Books as an organization focused on getting stories about all children into literature, and critically looking at the publishing industry from start to finish. “The stories are always being written; we need to put them in more people’s hands,” said Jiménez. In addition to racial diversity, the organization also examines the identities of class, disability, and gender in an effort to ask how we as readers can look at topics with a diverse lens.

After introducing himself, Older remarked, “What we’re witnessing right now and what we’re experiencing is a movement, and on top of that movement is also an artistic renaissance that we’re all a part of … I was an organizer before I was a writer and I was a writer before I was an organizer. They’re all interconnected. It’s ultimately about telling stories. Our job is to present the world as we see it to the world that doesn’t see it.”

Initial questions by Jiménez included: Why do apologies matter? What separates real apologies from phony ones? Who decides when it is appropriate to apologize? To answer, Gino first wanted to define what an apology is: saying you’re sorry, thanking someone for pointing out the mistake, and offering to remedy the situation. Gino continued, “Often diversity panels have been a way to go to learn how not to mess up. That’s not going to happen … The first tenet of this conversation is that there will be mistakes.” The question becomes, Gino added, what to do once you’ve made mistakes.” Parrott emphasized that both LJ and SLJ  make an effort to tell when books are not making the mark, or potentially causing harmand when they are treating their subjects and topics well.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Zoboi explained authors are always trying to figure things out, and publishing a book doesn’t necessarily;y meant that an author has figured it out. Older expanded, “Apologies matter if it’s not just the words we use, but the way we end up focusing the conversation.” Adding to that sentiment, Jiménez asked who is vulnerable in these situations. Often times, she explained, the offender is not at risk.

In her reading, Zoboi found that most of the offenses are centered around black children or blackness. She described her a guest post for Reading While White, along with the visceral reaction that black men and women can experience to reading harmful books, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genre.

For Parrott, publicly admitting a mistake is key. “It’s about asking, how did we miss this and how can we own this.” In helping reduce mistakes, she expressed focusing on educating and training; supporting people doing the work of reviewing and not making them feel bad about not knowing. Parrott also discussed the results from Lee & Low’s 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, and how both publishing and librarianship are primarily white fields. “People need to acknowledge their own privilege and blinders … It doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful just because you don’t see it,” she concluded.

Gino emphasized that one person’s way of being trans isn’t the same as someone else’s. “Look at who the reviews are from. Are they from the community that the book is about?” After Older mentioned that Twitter is quick to respond when reviews of his books are misinterpreted, Zoboi reminded the audience that the same is not always true for black women. “There is a hierarchy in terms of people coming to your defense,” she said, offering a sobering reminder that there are voices who are not vocal about what they are experiencing.

The conversation around blinders continued when discussing the original and revised covers of The Bad Mood and the Stick, a forthcoming book by Lemony Snicket (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), and how the original was seen as problematic by some, but not all readers.

The panel ended with the overlapping of subjects of blinders, privilege, and power. Older considered power “to be a deeply misunderstood element in how we think about people who aren’t us, usually because it’s such an uncomfortable conversation.” Responding to an audience question about fragility, Older maintained, “Victory means I don’t have that conversation anymore—and that’s a long way off.”

Referring to power, Zoboi said the conversation often stays at 101 because it’s all talk. “I don’t engage because it’s exhausting. That’s my personal self-care,” she confessed. The audience erupted in cheers when she noted, “And if I do [engage], I’m writing an essay and I’m getting paid for it.”

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About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

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