When I was in seventh grade, my teacher instructed the class to read “Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor. It was the first time I’d been assigned to read a book or story written by a non-white author about non-white characters.
Mainly, my classes focused on the works of great American novelists such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and Harper Lee. Even outside the classroom, my favorite books came from popular series such as “The Baby-Sitters Club,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and, of course, Harry Potter. All great stories, yet all written by white authors featuring white main characters.
These days, there are more diverse stories about race, religion, gender and sexuality for kids, teens and adults than before. But the numbers are still too few and the majority of books, diverse or not, are still being written by white, cisgender, male authors.
There’s a way to help change that starting this month. In November, aspiring writers across America and around the world are going to put their diverse stories into words. And those stories are ripe for the publishers’ picking ― if publishers are looking at NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, actually takes place every November. Over 30 days, aspiring authors challenge themselves to complete an entire novel by writing at least 50,000 words (or about 1,667 words a day). Started in 1999 by writer Chris Baty and a few of his friends in the San Francisco area, NaNoWriMo has grown into a nonprofit, a major networking opportunity and a global movement about the power of words, writing and novels.
The aspiring authors who sign up for the challenge “win” if they manage to complete their novel. NaNoWriMo helps them along with free tutorials, community support, advice on tracking progress and connections with published authors, all of which are not normally available to budding novelists, especially not those of color.
Numerous published novels have come out of this process, including such best-sellers as “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern, “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen and “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell. An even wider range of voices could emerge.
“In November, aspiring writers across America and around the world are going to put their diverse stories into words. And those stories are ripe for the publishers’ picking.”
Historically, the publishing industry has been dominated by both white authors and white decision-makers. About 79% of publishers with decision-making power are white. Organizations like We Need Diverse Books, People Of Color In Publishing and Latinx in Publishing have arisen in recent years to address the lack of minority representation among authors and publishers.
Within the category of children’s books, characters and authors aren’t all that diverse either. Of the 3,700 books the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed in 2017, only 134 had LGBTQ content and of those, only 21 were written by authors who identify as LGBTQ themselves. A 2018 study conducted by the center found there are more children’s books that feature an animal or another non-human character than those that feature any characters of color. The center has been tracking the number of children’s books authored by people of color since 1994. For years, the share of published multicultural authors stayed in the 10% range, before rising to 20% in 2015.
“The next great Black, Asian, Native, Latinx, queer or disabled writer could come to life this month.”
Of course, NaNoWriMo won’t a quick fix to all of the literary industry’s representation problems. The drafts produced this month, by writers of any background, aren’t automatically publishable and most will require some intense edits before being ready for bookshelves.
But none of this matters if publishers don’t look at the works of NaNoWriMo writers of color. Diversity isn’t just the responsibility of authors or readers. Publishers have to be interested in changing the landscape of the industry and willing to expand their networks and pay attention to emerging non-white authors and reviewers. (Right now, an overwhelming 89% of book reviewers at major publishing houses identify as white.)
As the NaNoWriMo writing challenge celebrates its 20th anniversary, the publishing industry should challenge its inclusivity problem by bringing some of NaNoWriMo’s latest authors from diverse backgrounds into the fold.
The next great Black, Asian, Native, Latinx, queer or disabled writer could come to life this month. Publishers, are you reading?