*This roundtable is a part of PEN’s new and ongoing initiative, The PEN Equity Project


We’ve gathered together some of the most notable writers and editors working in children’s and young adult book publishing and asked them to write about the effect the availability of diverse books had on their sense of identity growing up and what tangible changes they would make to bring about more diversity and equity in publishing. 



In my earliest recollection as a reader, I saw only two brown characters in books: Little Black Sambo and the gingerbread man. I did not think this was odd, although I wondered sometimes about all that running. My textbooks and the books available in my mother’s first grade classroom showed pale, rosy-cheeked, and square-framed characters like Dick and Jane. By my freshman year in high school, my cousin and I—both early integrators of segregated schools in New Orleans—referred to these books and characters as “orthopedic,” our own way of mocking outdated and out of touch literature in the new age of Black Power. By the time we were in ninth grade, we were going to our liberation group’s weekly meeting with books by black authors—Iceberg Slim, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Solomon Northup (Sue Eakin), Chinua Achebe, W. E. B. Du Bois, and a fellow named John Howard Griffin. Then, we debated, with little agreement, whether white authors could tell a black story. (And, yes, there were no women in our cannon.)

Many of the teachers at our new high school had no interest in African-American history, let alone in black writers. When I asked my civics teacher to include black contributions to the city of New Orleans, she said, “There are none.” I knew better, not because I had books about African Americans, but because I had concerned and engaged parents.

I was lucky to have had a poor, dark-skinned father and a dedicated mother who taught first grade. Both college-educated by the 1940s, they talked history and race at the dinner table, and connected it to our situation in segregation. They gave me animal metaphors of brutality and kindness, and recited bits of Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice) and Rudyard Kipling (“If”) in all sincerity. When I was younger, I had a Golden Book of Russian Fairy Tales, and my cousin had the Tales from the Arabian Nights.

My parents taught me plenty of Louisiana oral history, told me about Br’er Rabbit (Compair Lapin, a local folktale), and purchased the Golden Book Picture Atlas of the World. They insisted that Southern racism in the scheme of things was a mean-spirited aberration among some small-minded people because the world was large, diverse, and welcoming. That was a good story to tell children. 

Literature was the counterpoint to the hate that segregation tried to inculcate in me, both forcefully through laws and subtlety closer to home. When I saw the anxiety on my father’s face in the presence of police, his rant inside the house about one hundred daily slights, and my mother’s exaggerated articulation and politesse in the shopping district, I didn’t need to read a book to understand that I should be worried about my position in America. But I did need books to neutralize the feeling.

My family sought out black authors like Alexandre Dumas and Alice Dunbar Nelson, chose music by dark-skinned composers James Weldon Johnson and Edmond Dédé, and sang the second verse of “O Holy Night” in full voice. My mother made mimeographed pages of families and encouraged her students to color the characters brown.

Early in my writing career, I met a locally famous (read, white) children’s book author at a national book convention. She was about the same age as my parents. “How did you experience race?” I asked her with real curiosity. “I didn’t notice,” she answered.

She lived in a New Orleans that was 37 percent black in 1950. Louisiana was one of the five leading states in lynchings. The author saw race. She just didn’t notice it because her world turned just fine with oppression, thank you very much. She had no need to notice it, no need to write about it, and damn sure no need to tell her younger readers to consider the ramifications of it. This attitude was consistent, I discovered while researching my upcoming book, with the letters of a pro-slavery supporter in 1854. He wrote that books supporting his position were necessary because otherwise, abolitionists would “mold the minds of our children and fill their tender minds with impressions, the maturity of which would lead them not to honor but to despise their father and their mother—and to look upon them as savages—holding human beings in slavery” (Marshall 1854). 

I didn’t need to read a book to understand that I should be worried about my position in America. But I did need books to neutralize the feeling.

Now, it is hard to escape the images, for example, of black boys being shot by police, an Indian grandfather thrown to the ground, and a black man being choked to death with his hands in a surrender position. The relationship between these images and diversity in children’s books is strong. Empathy begins at home and it begins with the picture books children read.

All children need good stories. Honest fiction. True narratives. Picture books with history told from different points of view and dark-skinned people in the drawings so that children don’t need to color them in by hand (your children and mine).

I have a friend who told her son in NYC, “Never run down the street. It’s too dangerous.” Brown children need books with dark-skinned people in them so that they can imagine running down a street without the fear of getting shot, and white parents need the same books so that they will feel comfortable enough to not reach for their guns.

Does anyone really believe that the problem with diversity is that people of color and, especially, those with long histories in the United States, have so few stories, scant philosophies, and uneventful lives except in relation to the white majority? Do we think there is no room in publishing for the people who have heard these stories at their own dinner tables and from relatives?

We all know it’s a ruse that diversity can’t be achieved. The question is at what price.

Are we courageous enough to embrace people unlike ourselves? Do we believe that there is value in everyone’s experience? Will we put money behind new hires, internships, diversity pipelines, and mentoring? Will we engage people of color at cocktail parties while missing our usual power hookups?

Or are we going to continue down the same path, not noticing the wealth of narratives out there and the audiences dying read them? Are we going to continue talking about the difficulty of finding the right “fit”?

The solution is simple: We should hire people, train people, befriend people different than us—as if they were our nieces and nephews, and our friend’s kids. And maybe, if we are lucky, they will be.

-Fatima Shaik