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

Blog Post #2 – WeNeedDiverseBooks and Its Associated Websites

A great deal of the material in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag consists of linking to other sites, books, and so on. Fortunately, my extensive involvement in YA literature communities gave me some familiarity with these websites before the project began; I’ve been following We Need Diverse Books’ website on my Tumblr page since December, and followed Disability in Kidlit’s Tumblr page for several months before that for specific diversity-related reasons.

While working on this blog post, I decided to look around at some of the other sites that I knew less about. This took me to the website Gay YA, which is dedicated to the discussion of YA literature involving LGBTQIA+ characters.

Gay YA’s site contains book reviews, posts about LGBTQIA+ related issues in literature, and guest blog posts from writers. The majority of books reviewed have gay and lesbian content at the center (which can mainly be attributed to there not being much YA literature about the other letters). They’ve been running since 2011, but went on hiatus in 2012 and only began updating frequently last year. While I was browsing, I noticed they had a review of a book I picked up at the library earlier in the day, and I was delighted to see that they fully recommended it.

Fun fact: If you want to read books about characters who have diverse sexual identities, Julie Anne Peters is a great author.
Fun fact: If you want to read books about characters who have diverse sexual identities, Julie Anne Peters is a great author.

Another site I didn’t know much about before was Tu Books. Tu Books is an imprint of Lee and Low books that focus specifically on publishing books for young readers that are diverse in every sense of the word. (Their official Twitter account began following me at the start of my hashtag study.) I decided to take a screenshot of their page, which contains a mission statement that really brings home the importance of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement.

How cool is that, huh? (I may have preordered some of these books after reading this...)
How cool is that, huh? (I may have preordered some of these books after reading this…)

How cool is that? (I may or may not have pre-ordered some of their titles after reading that…)

After looking at some of these sites, I learned a few things. Primarily, I learned that the #WeNeedDiverseBooks community is, indeed, very diverse. Its members are of all different races, sexualities, disabilities, and more. However, one thing I noticed is that though they all want diverse books, there’s still not much discussion of intersectional diversity.

Since I’ve used this term often, let me explain: A book dealing with intersectional diversity would involve a character who is a member of two or more groups who would be considered “diverse.” (A book with a character who is black and dealing with depression would be intersectionally diverse.) Each site seems to be discussing books about one specific kind of diversity, and they don’t often interact with one another.

There’s probably a good reason for this. This post by Malinda Lo illustrates the problems some reviewers have with books that are diverse. In the third section of the post, she describes the problems that books containing intersectional diversity face in the hands of reviewers. Since they’re more likely to be reviewed in a lukewarm manner, publishers tend to shy away from books with more than one sort of “difference” involved… so there’s not as much to talk about.

I’m a little disappointed by this. There’s so much conversation that could be happening! I guess it’s time for the industry to change…

Blog Post #2 – WeNeedDiverseBooks and Its Associated Websites

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Analysis of a Hashtag

#WeNeedDiverseBooks is a big deal in literature for youth, but its hashtag is a bit less of a community than I expected.

The majority of this blog post was composed in ZenPen. Here is non-Photoshopped proof.
The majority of this blog post was composed in ZenPen. Here is non-Photoshopped proof.

In the past two weeks of tracking the tag, the hashtag has been used in 5,317 different tweets. (This data is based on modifications I made to only track tweets from accounts with 20 or more followers, since many accounts with fewer have spammed the tag in the past.)The user who tweets the most is MadhuriBlaylock, who has used the hashtag 1,271 times in the past two weeks. (She has also retweeted one of my usages of the tag.) After that, the users with the next highest number of tweets using the hashtag had fewer than fifty instances.

Most of what is discussed in the tag is sharing and re-sharing of articles related to diversity in literature. Since it is Black History Month, a lot of the tweets have to do with African-American literature.

TAGS Visualization
TAGS Visualization

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of conversation going on in the tag. Most of these tweets are just people sharing articles, without retweeting others or adding anything to the conversation. The TAGSExplorer graph for my archive shows that there are many people using the hashtag, but most of them aren’t talking to each other. The user who started the biggest conversation that’s visible on the graph so far has only had their tweet retweeted many times.In conclusion,

I’m a bit surprised that there’s not a lot of dialogue going on about #WeNeedDiverseBooks within its hashtag. Maybe I have to get some started, then!

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Analysis of a Hashtag