Mirrors and Windows: Finding Diversity at the Color of Children’s Literature Conference

Jennifer De Leon

On a drizzly Saturday morning in April, my Uber driver dropped me off in front of Scandinavia House, a cultural center in Manhattan that resembles a fancy café where people meet to have high tea and cucumber sandwiches. I opened the wide glass door and encountered three women frantically assorting red bags, stuffing them with programs and glossy-covered books and brochures. One woman looked up and smiled brightly even though it was barely eight in the morning. “Welcome,” she said. 

Edwidge Danticat delivers the keynote address in 2016.

I did feel welcome, for all around me I saw writers of color. I was here for the second annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference, sponsored by Kweli Journal, and as a Latina I have rarely walked into a writing conference feeling like I could recognize myself among other participants, never mind the panelists. One writer in attendance, Patrice Caldwell, posted on Twitter: “Usually I’m one of the only POC at publishing events and writers conferences, being at #Kweli16 is like home.” I’m sure many of the hundred and fifty writers, agents, and editors in the room felt the same way.

When I first heard about the conference, it seemed too good to be true. Top agents, editors, authors, and a keynote by Edwidge Danticat, a one-on-one manuscript consultation (for no extra charge), breakfast, coffee, and later wine and cheese, all for the price tag of $100? I couldn’t believe it. But Laura Pegram, the founding editor of Kweli and principal organizer of the conference, wanted to keep the event accessible to all writers of color, at various stages of their careers. 

Accessibility is a critical component in the larger campaign to increase diversity in writing and publishing across genres and audiences. The best-intentioned initiatives—conferences, panels, workshops, internships—must be accessible to those writing in the margins, to those who may lack resources and those who need them the most. There are the tangible barriers, like cost, transportation, and time away from work and family, which writers from all backgrounds may face, but there are also the invisible barriers many writers of color in particular encounter, namely lack of mentorship and visibility. So what could this particular space provide? As it turned out, more than I could imagine.

I placed my suitcase in the back of the main conference room, a relatively small space where rows of gray chairs had been set up amphitheater style. A cameraman stood in the center aisle. I sat in the second row, behind a woman wearing earrings in the shape of Africa. She had taken the Greyhound bus overnight from Toronto to attend the conference. 

On tables along the ceiling-high windows sat white crumpled bags full of bagels, silver thermoses of hot coffee, and open containers of cream cheese. Veronica Lu from Word Up Community Book Shop, a New York City bookstore run entirely by volunteers, set up a display with titles like A Is for Africa by Ifeoma Onyefulu and Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai.

The energy in the room was palpable, and when Danticat stepped up to the podium to give the keynote, “Does Your Face Light Up?” everyone in the room applauded wildly. She shared her own path as an author, how when an editor from Soho Press called her to tell her that they wanted to publish her novel, she asked them how much she would have to pay them. She discussed the importance of reading, how in Haiti she sees kids who desperately want to read but don’t have any books, and in the United States she sees kids who have plenty of books but who don’t want to read. “I have been both kinds of kids,” she said. “And often when we read, especially when we’re younger, we are looking for a mirror, echoes of our voices, people who might look and sound like us.” She assured us that our stories matter and that the best time to tell them is now. 

Recent data supports Danticat’s message. In the March 2014 New York Times editorial “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Walter Dean Meyers pointed out that, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people or featured black characters. Within the publishing industry, meanwhile, a 2015 survey by Lee & Low Books, “Where is the Diversity in Publishing?” revealed that 79 percent of editors are Caucasian, 7 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic/Latino/Mexican, 4 percent Black/African American, and less than 1 percent Native American. With the publishing industry so white, it’s perhaps no wonder that the majority of children’s books published are about, and marketed toward, white children. The mirrors apply not only to readers, but to gatekeepers, too. 

Children’s book writers gather at the 2016 Color of Children’s Literature Conference.

As I scanned the packed audience during Danticat’s speech, I saw several nods, looks of recognition, and even a few tears. A peaceful buzz settled over the crowded room, in which chairs had been dragged in from other rooms and which was now packed to standing room only. Lining the back wall were the bulky suitcases of participants who had traveled to the conference from as far as Arizona and Canada. In attendance was a mix of men and women, a wide range of ages; Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American writers were represented.

One Native American writer I spoke to attended the conference on a scholarship program organized by Joseph Bruchac, author of the YA novel Trail of the Dead (Tu Books, 2015). This writer’s goal for the conference was to meet other Native American authors. “Sherman Alexie is great, but he’s only one. There are over four hundred federally regulated tribes in the United States. We need more people telling our stories and from our point of view.” 

Pegram, a multidisciplinary artist who started in publishing as a children’s book author, concieved of the conference with the belief that “the sky was the ceiling.” Kweli launched as a biannual journal in December 2009 and has since grown into a multifaceted community organization that offers numerous writing opportunities, including another annual writers conference, professional development workshops, and the Kweli Scholars program. The Color of Children’s Literature Conference was launched in 2015, two years after Pegram founded Kweli’s original conference. “I began to realize that children’s books writers were getting short shrift during our annual conference, so I decided to hold two separate events each year,” she said.

Panels at the 2016 Color of Children’s Literature Conference included “Publishing 101,” moderated by Connie Hsu of Roaring Brook/Macmillan, and “Industry Overview and Options,” facilitated by Lynne Polvino of Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, among others such as “Writing and Illustrating Picture Books,” “Writing Middle-Grade and Young Adult Novels,” and “Success Stories.”

Most of the panels were held in the same big conference room. In the afternoon, when there were simultaneous panels, it was hard to choose which ones to attend. Every minute felt valuable, and yet the frenzied aura of a typical writing conference was absent. Maybe it was the soft lighting in one auditorium or the casual way the chairs had been set up onstage, but the editors seemed more approachable, more willing to share the honest, hard truths—and their business cards—than at other conferences. 

Or maybe it was me who was different. Because of the sheer size of many conferences, it can be challenging to get face-to-face time with the esteemed editors in attendance. Yet when I asked Alvina Ling, executive editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, if she wanted to meet for coffee downstairs in the café, she immediately agreed. She even gave me a free book. 

In addition to individual manuscript critiques, the conference offered several breaks between panels, which provided opportunities to network. Attendees exchanged contact information, tweeted about the conference, and made plans to follow up on social media. During one break, I received an invitation to join a private Facebook group for KidLit Authors of Color.

Still, the question hung in the air: What exactly do we mean by diversity in publishing? In Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Toni Morrison, published in the New York Times Magazine in 2015, Junot Díaz reflected on his admiration for Morrison and also shared thoughts of the current publishing world. “The literary world has tripled down on its whiteness,” he said. This was the topic of conversation at the Moonstruck diner, where I ate fries and a BLT along with Jalissa and Perla, two other conference participants. Why is publishing so white? What can we do about it? Jalissa shared that she was balancing two internships (only one of which was paid) while working on her fantasy novel and living with her grandmother in Brooklyn. When talking about her goals for the future, her face lit up. She acknowledged how fortunate she was to be able to afford the opportunity to attend the conference. This again points to that ever-important element of achieving diversity in publishing: access. On one conference panel, Zetta Elliott, author of the children’s book Bird (Lee & Low, 2008), said, “Publishing isn’t about profit. It’s about power.” Beyond gatekeeper editors, she said, there are millions of middle-class white kids who have the purchasing power. In other words, the books those kids (or their parents) buy increase the sales numbers on marketing sheets that editors have to present to their publishers. Editors, as such, acquire and publish the books they think those kids, or their parents, will buy. 

But is it true, the argument that many of us have heard, that like attracts like? That white people buy only books written by and about white people, that white publishers hire white editors who in turn buy manuscripts written by white writers? Does the publishing industry really just come down to numbers? Phoebe Yeh, publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, spoke about the profit-and-loss spreadsheets that editors are required to fill out. “At the end of the day, we have to make money,” she said, and the reality is that “the only information you have is what has worked before.” While I appreciated the transparency about numbers Yeh offered, I couldn’t help but wonder: Before those numbers can be adjusted, mustn’t writers of color first break through? How do we do that? 

Physical events like the Color of Children’s Literature Conference are one way. Efforts like We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots organization of children’s book readers and writers, are another. An initiative that began as a Twitter hashtag, We Need Diverse Books works to advocate changes in the publishing industry in order to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people, including children of color, LGBTQIA children, children with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. Part of the organization’s work involves identifying and publicizing statistics within the industry to make disparities more transparent; but perhaps even more important, We Need Diverse Books sponsors a number of mentorship programs, internships, contests, and grants to help aspiring writers and editors break into the industry as well as educational initiatives geared toward getting diverse books into classrooms across the country. 

Social media also provides an increasing number of opportunities, such as #DVpit, a twelve-hour Twitter pitching event for marginalized writers hosted and moderated by literary agent Beth Phelan in 2016. The event was tremendously successful, attracting more than five thousand tweets and pitches. “We are still at a point where only approximately 10 percent of all children’s and YA books published are by people of color, across all ethnicities,” said Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, about the importance of such opportunities. “Ten percent, in a country where 50 percent of all public-school children are people of color.”

Klein was one of several editors who volunteered to help coordinate the publishing side of the 2016 conference, recruiting and liaising with participating editors and agents interested in furthering Kweli’s mission within the publishing industry: to provide a platform for the voices of writers of color, who, despite unceasing efforts to be heard, do not easily find a willing and welcoming place for their work in the wider publishing world. 

At a reception toward the end of the conference, Klein emptied a box of crackers onto a plastic tray and arranged cubes of cheese and pistachios on oval plates. I sipped white wine from a plastic cup and spoke with other participants and editors and learned about another unique resource offered by the website Writing in the Margins: a database of sensitivity readers—people who read and review manuscripts for issues of representation, internalized bias, and negatively charged language. The database includes a list of qualified sensitivity readers, as well as their rates and qualifications. Such readers can be helpful for writers working on a book that contains marginalized characters outside the author’s own experience—a process that can lead to more fully realized characters and empathetic perspectives, authentic stories that have the ability to transcend audience. 

By the end of the conference, as I tapped my phone and requested another Uber to pick me up, it was dark outside. I picked up my suitcase in the back of the room and left Scandinavia House feeling exhausted and inspired. On my way out, Laura Pegram thanked me for coming and wished me well on my journey home. Later, as I stared out the window of the car, I reflected on what I had learned at the conference: that to create more diversity in publishing, we need more mentorship, including paid internships; that we need diversity at every level—from writers and teachers to editors and publicists—in order to achieve systemic, long-lasting change; and that we need to broaden our understanding of what it means to be successful. That for some writers, success might mean mainstream publication; for others, it might simply mean finding a like-minded community of writers to keep them going. For many writers of color, that struggle to keep going amid challenges and roadblocks can be exhausting and can sometimes lead to burnout.  

 “People of color in the publishing field face an added stress to be twice as good,” Klein said, “or to speak for their entire ethnicity or culture in connection to a manuscript or marketing efforts.” The same can be said for authors. Last spring, GrubStreet, an independent creative writing center in Boston, hosted as part of its 2016 Muse and Marketplace Conference a first-ever “Writers of Color Roundtable.” The conversation featured authors Alexander Chee, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Mira Jacob, Sonya Larson, Celeste Ng, and myself, as well as literary agent Regina Brooks and Spiegel & Grau editor Emi Ikkanda. We shared how our personal experiences affected what we wrote, the expectations placed upon us, and our pathways to publishing. Larson, who conceptualized the roundtable, has since started a Writers of Color group in Boston “for interested peeps to meet, share resources, and champion one another.” 

In terms of that kind of community, Kweli has got it covered. In addition to their two annual conferences, Pegram and her team have also launched a Reading and Conversations series presented in partnership with the New York Times African Heritage Network (having recently featured Edward P. Jones in conversation with Wyatt Mason), and the Kweli Scholars program, which provides emerging writers of color with tuition-free writing classes and mentorship at Poets House in New York City and online, with students hailing from as far as Kenya, Turkey, and Palestine. In addition, Kweli’s online literary journal continues to bring new voices to wide audiences and to help writers attract the attention of agents and editors. 

When asked how she sees Kweli fitting in with the larger movement to increase diversity in publishing, Pegram said, “Kweli will most likely remain a more intimate community space for writers of color who are interested in telling their stories well and building a platform. Kweli is a labor of love, supported by a very small circle of volunteers. We are still under the radar, but each year we are growing and stretching and taking first steps and more writers and readers are discovering us. The joy is truly in the giving.”

By the time I returned home, I couldn’t help but think about something Edwidge Danticat had said during her keynote address, just twelve hours earlier. “By writing your story you may become somebody’s church, somebody’s once upon a time. Write for the twelve-year-old girl who is looking at a mirror and at a window,” she said. I couldn’t wait to get back to the page, to tell my story. I already know I want to be in the front row at next year’s conference. One thing is for sure: #Kweli17 will need a bigger room. 

The third annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference will be held on April 8 at the New York Times Conference Center in midtown Manhattan. Visit www.kwelijournal.org for more information.  

Jennifer De Leon is currently a City of Boston artist in residence. She teaches at Emerson College and Berklee College of Music. Her website is www.jenniferdeleonauthor.com. 

More Conferences for Underrepresented Voices

Today there are more conferences and workshops devoted to poets and writers from historically underrepresented communities than ever before. From the groundbreaking Macondo Writers Workshop, founded in 1995 by writer Sandra Cisneros, to newer ventures such as the Pink Door Women’s Writing Retreat, these programs offer members of specific communities the opportunity to collaborate, celebrate, network, and study with accomplished and supportive literary mentors. Most of these conferences require tuition, though many offer financial aid. Visit the websites for more information, including dates, registration details, and associated costs.

Biannual two-day professional development conference for women and gender-nonconforming poets and writers at the University of California in Los Angeles in April and Cooper Union in New York City in October. 
Typical registration deadlines: March 1 and October 14

CantoMundo Retreat
Three-day retreat for Latinx poets at Columbia University in New York City in June.
Typical application deadline: December 31

Cave Canem Fellowship
Weeklong retreat for African American poets at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in June.
Typical application deadline: December 23

Comadres and Compadres Writers Conference
Two-day conference for Latino/Latina writers of adult, young adult, and children’s fiction at the New School in New York City in October.
Advanced and on-site registration 

Hurston/Wright Foundation Summer Writers Week
Weeklong guided retreat for black fiction and nonfiction writers in Washington, D.C., in August.
Typical application deadline: February 1

Kimbilio Fiction Retreat
Weeklong retreat for African American fiction writers at Southern Methodist University in Taos, New Mexico, in July.
Typical application deadline: March 15

Kundiman Fellowship
Five-day retreat for Asian American poets and writers at Fordham University in New York City in June.
Typical application deadline: January 15

Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices
Weeklong workshop for LGBTQ poets and writers at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in August.
Typical application deadline: January 30 

Macondo Writers Workshop
Four-day workshop for poets and writers belonging to any historically marginalized group at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio in July.
Typical application deadline: March 1

Pink Door Women’s Writing Retreat
Five-day retreat for women and gender-nonconforming poets and writers of color in Rochester, New York, in July.
Typical application deadline: April 15

Returning the Gift Indigenous Storytelling and Literary Festival
Four-day conference for indigenous poets and writers, as well as academics, tribal dignitaries, community members, and youth, at the University of Oklahoma in Norman in July.
Advanced and on-site registration 

Sula’s Room Residency
Weekend-long funded residency for New York City–based women poets and writers of color in Hudson, New York, in November and December.
Typical application deadline: August 15

Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) Voices Workshop
Weeklong workshop for poets and writers of color at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in June.
Application deadline: March 15