WeNeedDiverseBooks Analysis: What I’ve Learned

It’s strange to go into a hashtag centered around something you believe in deeply. It’s obviously more interesting than taking something you don’t care about, which makes the homework feel a lot less like work. On the other hand, it’s pretty much impossible to go into it without any preconceived notions about what you’re going to find.

Fortunately for me, I like a bit of a surprise.

When I started studying the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, I had heard of the movement–as well as its corresponding website–and saw the benefits that its prevalence had reaped. (As I said in a prior post, last year’s discussion about diversity in children’s literature most likely influenced the results of this year’s Youth Media Awards.) Individuals I knew in the children’s/young adult literature community had We Need Diverse Books banners added to their Twitter icons, my library had a specialized display up for months, they had an Indiegogo campaign… it was everywhere. And I was totally into it. But as much as I knew about it, I didn’t really know much about it. (If that makes sense.)

Diving into the hashtag, I noticed a few things. First, most of the diversity discussed in the tag was racial, and the myriad other kinds of diversity out there were uncommon. Second, a great majority of the tweets with the hashtag attached were retweets, and not much conversation happened.

A sample of tweets I archived. All tweets with RT at the beginning are retweets.
A sample of tweets I archived. All tweets with RT at the beginning are retweets. There are plenty more where those came from.

I was a bit disappointed. I was hoping to see thoughtful tweets about disability and mental illness in books, and there were only a few mentions of books with disabled characters (or even expressions of a want/need for books containing said characters). More than that, though, I wanted to see conversations going on, and there weren’t any.

Then, once I started following lots of authors and book enthusiasts, something occurred to me: the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag is only one facet of the pro-diversity community, and only one of its tools for communication. Following authors that used the tag frequently led me to a multitude of interesting discussions, plenty of feedback about things that are/are not good in regards to cultural representation, and talk about all kinds of diversity.

And, of course, I joined in here and there.

A conversation with the Twitter account for Tu Books, a publisher I discussed in an earlier post.
A conversation with the Twitter account for Tu Books, a publisher I discussed in an earlier post.

(Including the above tweet because it led to an interesting conversation with author Chase Night about unoriginality of book marketing. Which is awesome, because I talked to an author about something indirectly related to diversity.) There are many things that I have taken away from the whole experience of interacting with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.

1. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag fits all of the criteria for a community that Nancy K. Baym describes in Personal Connections in the Digital Age. In the beginning of chapter 4, “Communities and Networks,” Baym lists five characteristics that online groups shared. They were a sense of space, shared practice, shared resources/support, shared identities, and interpersonal relationships.” (p. 72) Some of them are easier to assess than others, but by her standards #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a community. The space is the hashtag itself, the practice is using the hashtag and discussing diversity, the resources are various book lists and websites about diversity in books, the identities are generally as writers or readers (or both!) who all care about diversity, and most people have interpersonal relationships with one another. Based on this, I’ve come to the conclusion that this hashtag does, indeed, qualify as a community.

2. Though #WeNeedDiverseBooks is, in itself, a community, it is also part of a larger community. This is something I suspected; after all, I’d been on the fringes of the children’s literature community during the time when the hashtag was at peak popularity. However, I was unaware of the complexities of both communities. It’s hard to find anybody in the children’s literature community that doesn’t care about WNDB; on the flipside, nobody who uses the hashtag doesn’t care about children’s literature. (Aside from those who use it improperly, but I weeded them out.)

3. Though all diversity is important, #WeNeedDiverseBooks talks primarily about racial diversity. And that’s perfectly fine.   Though the children’s literature community at large cares a lot about all sorts of diversity, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag is mostly concerned with promoting books about and written by people of color. Though this initially disappointed me, I had to adjust my expectations and try to understand why this must be so. And it’s true: There aren’t all that many books about children and teens of different races out there, and the ones that do get released are often buried by their publishers in favor of books that are about white kids/teens. The world is a much more racially diverse place than the books that are supposed to represent it, and this is a problem that needs to be rectified. As much as I desperately want more intelligent and respectful books about people with disabilities and mental illness, that’s not quite the conversation that’s going on in this hashtag. But something just as important is, and that’s valuable.

With numbers like this, it's hard to argue.
A table with statistics from the article above. With numbers like this, it’s hard to argue.

4. Studying a hashtag, especially one related to your career field, changes you. I’m not going to lie: Before I started researching #WeNeedDiverseBooks, my reading list for this year’s YA lineup wasn’t remotely diverse beyond books about mental illness and disability. It was blindingly white, straight as a ruler, and overall sort of “familiar.” I’d only heard about the big buzz titles, because they were getting the best reviews. This, sadly, ensured that a lot of things flew by my radar for a little while. (There is much to be said about mainstream publications’ reluctance to recognize books by authors of color, as well as the general perception of diverse books by reviewers.) During the study, I took a look at my list of books I wanted to read, and it hit me. I decided to fix that right away, and looking through the hashtag put some incredible-sounding titles on my radar for the coming months…

And I grabbed a bunch of diverse titles from my local library, too.

So how has it worked out? Very well, I’d say. My reading list is truly diverse now, consisting of even more books than before, and I’ve found some truly incredible stories. That, I think, was supposed to be the end goal of #WeNeedDiverseBooks: to get people to read books they wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and to show publishers that these books are every bit as valuable as the ones they promote so heavily. And if it worked on somebody who was supposed to be analyzing the tag for school, imagine how it would impact a kid just looking for good books to read about people like them.

WeNeedDiverseBooks Analysis: What I’ve Learned

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