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Author Dhonielle Clayton discusses the need for diverse books

Dhonielle Clayton (right) has a candid discussion with Lamar Wilson, a faculty member at Wake Forest University, about the need for diverse books.

Author Dhonielle Clayton discusses the need for diverse books
September 12
01:15 2019

On Saturday, Sept. 7, dozens of people gathered in the Reynolds Place Theater to attend the Urgency of Now: Why the World Needs Diverse Books discussion. 

As part of the 15th annual Festival of Books and Authors, Bookmarks hosted the discussion. Who better to lead the discussion than author Dhonielle Clayton, the COO of the non-profit We Need Diverse Books and founder of CAKE Literacy?

Dhonielle Clayton, a 2005 graduate of Wake Forest University, spoke with Lamar Wilson, a faculty member in the English department at Wake Forest University, about the nuisances and barriers to having diverse books in the book industry.

We Need Diverse Books started as a hashtag during the 2014 Book Expo of America, where a poster that portrayed children’s luminaries featured a grumpy cat. The grumpy cat was considered the representation of diversity.  According to Clayton, teachers, librarians and publishers were outraged and began the hashtag and a movement that went viral for days following. From that, We Need Diverse Books, the nonprofit, was born. 

Clayton, the author of  “The Belles” and “Tiny Pretty Things,” stated that We Need Diverse Books offers a broad range in defining diversity. It includes skin color, sexual orientation and disabilities. 

“Changing the landscape of who’s working and buying books will help get the diverse books we need at the end of the road,” she said. 

With We Need Diverse Books, an author is given The Walter award (named after Walter D. Myers, an American children’s writer) annually to a children/teen’s book that features characters of marginalized backgrounds written by a person from a marginalized background. We Need Diverse books donates $20,000 from the award-winning book to Title I schools.

“There’s a relationship between books in a child’s home and their literacy rate,” said Clayton. 

Clayton’s purpose as an author is to address the diversity she was lacking as a young reader.

“When I was kid, I got tired of reading books about civil rights in February.”  Clayton went on to say she wanted to read books about mythical worlds and Sci-Fi. However, she did not see people that looked like her in those types of books. 

“I never saw myself in the books I read as a child. I wanted to write about a little girl that looked like me with frizzy and puffy hair. I wanted to write for the little girl that was me …  a little girl that [in my books] gets to be one of the most powerful people in this world. In a world that has nothing to do with this place called America, but has everything to do with this place.” 

As an author, Clayton explains how she helps alleviate the lack of diversity in her own books.

“I make sure I include as many axes in my books. I’m a black American. My parents are from Mississippi and Durham, N.C. I pull from that tradition and try to make sure that texture is there. I also want to make sure that queer characters are in my work. I want queer readers to read my work and say ‘I am OK.’ However, I do not make these diversities plot points in my books.”

Her advice to bring awareness to diverse books starts with the fans of books and authors. 

“Start with word of mouth, talking about the books, putting the books out there. The biggest issue is that people don’t know about the books. I think by consumers being loud is the best thing ever. That’s how fandom begins. Go to the library and request the books. Be loud!”

For more information about diverse books, see weneeddiversebooks.org. To learn more about Dhonielle Clayton and her books, go to dhonielleclayton.com.

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Bridget Elam

Bridget Elam

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