STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The book industry has just finished its annual conference in New York. It's called Book Expo. And for the first time, one of the days of Book Expo was open to the public. That was dubbed BookCon. And when the author lineup was unveiled, the list featured no writers of color. That prompted a social media campaign centered around the lack of diversity in children's books. And as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, the conversation grew to embrace all of publishing.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: I'm standing in the atrium of the Javits Center in Midtown, Manhattan, and this atrium is filled with multi-story banners to the big books of the year. There's a new memoir by writer and actress Lena Dunham. There's a giant picture of David Mitchell, the author of "Cloud Atlas." But for writer Lamar Giles, something is missing here.
LAMAR GILES: Well, I see very large banners for people who don't look like me.
QURESHI: Lamar Giles is black, and he writes children's books published by HarperCollins.
GILES: Not to say they don't deserve this, but it's interesting just to see that these images don't really reflect what I'm seeing as far as the crowd. I'm seeing all sorts of people.
QURESHI: But the initial lineup for Saturday included James Patterson, Lemony Snicket - even Internet superstar Grumpy Cat. The lack of authors of color lit the spark for the We Need Diverse Books Campaign - a tsunami of tweets and photos from people of all ages and colors. Lamar Giles posted this message.
GILES: We need diverse books because we're more than token sidekicks, comic relief or the sacrificial minority. And that's, like, the experience I've had particularly with black males in fiction. I like to read science fiction and fantasy, and you may have heard the joke, you know, the black guy's in there, he's going to die first. And that's never really been funny to me.
QURESHI: When Giles and 21 of his fellow writers began the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, they expected to be agitators on the sidelines. But conference organizer, Brien McDonald says they weren't just firing off 140-character barbs. So he invited them to New York.
BRIEN MCDONALD: I approached them. We got on the phone. We had some email correspondences. And they wanted to work together around this and bring it to people.
QURESHI: The result was a panel on Saturday morning - standing room only - black, brown, white and Asian readers of all ages.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Too bad no one really thinks that we need diverse books.
QURESHI: Afterwards, one of the campaign's organizers, Ellen Oh, said it wasn't about a kind of forced integration, but about preparing a new generation of Americans for a collective, multicultural future.
ELLEN OH: We need the representation, but we also need white kids to read about us, to recognize us and not push us off into the other - not to think of us as exotic or being so very different.
QURESHI: This goes beyond children's books, says Lamar Giles. He says publishing is an old-school industry.
GILES: It's more tradition than malice because so many people, once you bring it to their attention, they're like, yeah. And they kind of look at the numbers and realize like, hey, we've been existing like this for 20, 30 years. It doesn't make that much sense considering the makeup of our country. And a lot of them are willing to make a change.
QURESHI: Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson is hoping for an even bigger change.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: I would like, for one day, us to not have to even have this conversation. I love for the word diverse to one day be cliche. It's, like, redundant almost. We need diverse books. Well, no, we need books. And those books are the books that represent all of us.
QURESHI: As I was leaving, I saw a crowd storming in the arrival of Grumpy Cat - the Internet phenomenon who had been the only sort of non-white star of the conference before the We Deed Diverse Books Campaign.
GILES: We're watching people walk by. This guy's holding grumpy cat, and he's got, like, entourage. I mean, there's a camera crew.
QURESHI: Then writer Lamar Giles took a deep breath.
GILES: I don't get it, but, hey, whatever. I mean, as long as we're here, and we're trying to make a difference. I will focus on that for now.
QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
INSKEEP: It's NPR News.