In April, when writer Ellen Oh started the hashtag and Tumblr We Need Diverse Books, the publishing community was in arms over the exclusion of headlining writers of color at one of the industry’s most important conventions.
Now, a similar incident at one of the industry’s biggest awards ceremonies is fueling a wave of support for the activist group that We Need Diverse Books has grown into.
At Wednesday night’s National Book Awards ceremony, emcee Daniel Handler, better known to the world as Lemony Snicket, dropped jaws around the room and around the publishing community when he unleashed a series of racist jokes, some leveled at attending guests, including honoree Jacqueline Woodson.
Woodson, whose books include If You Come Softly and After Tupac & D Foster, is the winner of multiple Newbery Medals for children’s literature, as well as the Coretta Scott King Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Wednesday night she won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. But Handler’s remarks overshadowed her win. First he joked that she was “allergic to watermelon” before going to express a wish to win the Coretta Scott King Award himself. (As a white man, he’s ineligible.) He also joked that a grouping of two black poets was otherwise known as “probable cause.”
Given that Handler’s remarks came during high tensions over the looming grand jury decision in Ferguson, the publishing community was duly outraged, and spent the better part of late Wednesday night and Thursday morning reeling from the remarks. Handler issued an apology on his Twitter account Thursday. But as the media picked up on the scandal, community members noted that it was important not to lose track of Woodson’s accomplishments:
The hashtag #CelebrateJackie made the rounds as a result of the conversation around Handler’s remarks. This morning, Handler himself joined in, issuing a fuller apology and an unexpected bonus:
My remarks on Wednesday night at #NBAwards were monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist. -DH [1/4]— Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 21, 2014
It would be heartbreaking for the #NBAwards conversation to focus on my behavior instead of great books. So can we do this? -DH [2/4]— Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 21, 2014
Brown Girl Dreaming is an amazing novel and we need more voices like Jacqueline Woodson. -DH [4/4]— Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 21, 2014
The We Need Diverse Books IndieGoGo campaign sprang out of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and Tumblr that Oh began in late April as a response to writers of color being left off headlining panels at Book Expo America. The hashtag, often simply shorthanded #WNDB, has been in constant effect since, and has become a core part of conversations within the publishing community about diversity.
The IndieGoGo campaign, which launched on Oct. 23, is an effort to extend that conversation into practice. The WNDB project plans to launch a classroom diversity project along with a grant program for authors of color, named after the late great children’s author Walter Dean Myers. The project will also host the Kidlit Diversity Festival in Washington, D.C. and promote diversity generally in classrooms and other educational environments.
We Need Diverse Books quickly raised its $100,000 campaign goal. But with 20 days remaining, the project is aiming for two important stretch goals:
- At $125,000 WNDB will launch a networking initiative aimed at the publishing industry itself: “Funding for diverse interns at publishers, creating mentorships to develop diverse voices,” and “ongoing networking and consulting opportunities”
- At $50,000 WNDB will launch an expanded educational initiative aimed at getting out of classrooms and into larger communities. Aims will include travel grants to enable authors to attend more opportunities in more locations, as well as an interactive mobile app that allows users to easily find recommendations and information for a wide variety of diverse books.
At press time, the campaign stood at $113,000. Handler’s promise to match up to $100,000 by the end of the day means it’s possible both goals could be met. The WNDB Tumblr added several perks designed around Woodson’s books for the day to acknowledge the significance of the occasion.
But despite Handler’s $10,000 donation and matching promise, not everyone was ready to forgive and forget.
I'm glad he's donating money, I'm glad he apologized. But sometimes I really feel like saying Keep your fucking apology. Do better.— Daniel José Older (@djolder) November 21, 2014
While the donation is clearly Handler’s attempt to “do better,” there are plenty of people who undoubtedly wish he’d shown that sort of consideration before writing his jokes for awards night.
Still, if We Need Diverse Books can increase the number of diverse voices in publishing, then hopefully such attempts at humor, and the racist logic that produces them, will ultimately die out altogether.
Photo via reblogbookclub/Tumblr